Hal Pilger's feature story from St. Louis Rams' training camp
Little big man? At 5 feet 8, kick returner/wide receiver Dante Hall could be the St. Louis Rams’ biggest acquisition since the end of last season.
The former Kansas Chiefs superstar and Pro Bowl returner — should he rekindle the kind of performances that a few years ago electrified crowds around the NFL — could provide the special teams spark the Rams have lacked pretty much all of this millennium.
“It's a team — it's special teams, and as a unit we’re going to have to turn it around,” eighth-year pro Hall said. “My thing is, I'm always looking for the home run ball (on punt returns), but coach (new Rams special teams coach Al Roberts) has kind of showed me on tape that if I take the 10 I could even be better individually.
“So I’m going to concentrate on getting 10 yards, getting the offense the first down, but at the same time I’m going to stick to my game and after so many times, I’m going to do my thing and get it in the end zone.
“That's my game. I know I'm always looking for the home run. But what I've kind of been focusing on, what I want to work on my game as far as special teams is don’t always look for the home run. Take the 10, take the 15 and then home runs will come.”
Says head coach Scott Linehan, “Dante's done just fine. When we put the pads on, you can tell Dante's been playing. And that's nice to see on the offensive side. One thing is he takes all that anxiety away from whether the ball’s going to be caught (on kicks or punts), or him understanding the scheme, those kinds of things.
“I’m excited, as everybody is, to see him go to work when we start playing games.”
As a wideout, Hall probably will be used sparingly as a screen pass slot option. Over the last five seasons, Hall has caught 145 passes for 1,615 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Rams are expecting his biggest contributions to come on special teams.
The Rams have had just one touchdown on punt or kickoff returns since 2002. During that time Hall has had 11 — six on kickoff returns and five on punt returns. In 2003 he totaled four — two of each — and returned a kickoff or a punt for a TD in an NFL-record four consecutive games. His 11 returns for TDs are two shy of NFL record-holder Brian Mitchell's 13 and one behind second-place Eric Metcalf.
“That's my only and last individual goal I'm aiming for,” Hall said, “to get that all-time kick return record.”
The numbers have diminished in recent seasons, with Hall returning one kickoff for a TD in 2005 and one punt for a score last year. But the desire and, Hall believes, the ability have not diminished. And he also believes working with high-energy coach Roberts will help him revitalize his return game.
“I love Al Roberts,” Hall said. “He's very detailed, very enthusiastic, a funny guy. He keeps meetings good. I love the way he approaches coaching.”
Which does Hall like most, kickoff or punt returns?
“Punt returns,” he said without hesitation. “With kickoff returns you line up . . . the kickoff team gets a 15-20-yard head start before they're even touched. So they come down in one complete wave. Whereas punt returns, the guys have to block first, and a lot of times as they're blocking, they get tangled up and a lot of guys get out of lanes.
“So it's more lanes, and if you make one or two guys miss, you're in the open field as opposed to when you’re returning kicks. It's just a lot harder to get a kick return to the house than it is a punt return.”
Does Hall have a sense of just how poorly Rams special teams have performed in recent years?
“The fact that they traded for me and gave up (a fifth-round draft pick), it had to be pretty bad,” Hall said with a chuckle. “I know it's not good, and we — as a unit — we're definitely going to get that turned around.
“I know this was something that needed to be addressed, and by bringing coach Al Roberts in and bringing me in — just putting the focus on it — I think that's the No. 1 thing. A lot of teams want to have great special teams, but they don't want to put the necessary work in to make it a good team. And I think that's one thing that this organization has started to do, put an actual focus in.”
The amount of the work the Rams are putting into special teams is testament to that.
“We have two or three (special teams) practice sessions,” Hall said. “In the beginning we do a walk-through before our practice. We do one in practice, and then we do another session after practice. That's a lot of special teams.
“Most teams don't put that much work in on the field. They might ask you to do it in the classroom or individually, but to actually set aside three sessions in one practice during training camp lets me know that they're serious.”
Most fans say it's about time. There has been an obvious and frustrating lack of emphasis regarding special teams almost every season since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. That seems to be changing this year.
“Of course, it's a team game,” Linehan said. “It's not Dante Hall making 11 guys miss. We’ve got to do it, but it's going to charge some energy into that group. They're going to be held to a different level of accountability now for giving the guy a chance, and everybody's got to buy into that team concept of special teams. It’s not going to be just him."
Hall says the biggest key to a successful punt or kickoff return is timing.
“If the guys do a great job of blocking but it's too early or too late, no matter what I'm doing it won't work,” Hall said. “So we all must be on the same page. That's why you have to put so much time in it.
“You have to know my style of running; I have to know how they're going to block, how they like to block — is it a kill shot, is it just technique. Once you work together for so long, you get the timing down. That's the No. 1 thing.
“And then after that, of course, all great returners have to, at some point, make a couple of guys miss.”
As a kick returner, Hall has been called “The X-Factor, The Human Torch, The Human Glowstick and The Human Joystick,” among his many monickers.
The Rams would gladly settle for calling him successful.
Hal Pilger can be reached at (217) 788-1548 or firstname.lastname@example.org.