Eagles have a driven special-teams coach
Bobby April couldn't believe it. The football was just lying there near the goal line. "Get the ball! Get the ball!" shouted the Eagles' energetic special-teams coach. Returner Ellis Hobbs had failed to field a kickoff during a special-teams session on the last day of the Eagles' June practices. April, more than 50 yards away, began running toward the ball.
Bobby April couldn't believe it. The football was just lying there near the goal line.
"Get the ball! Get the ball!" shouted the Eagles' energetic special-teams coach. Returner Ellis Hobbs had failed to field a kickoff during a special-teams session on the last day of the Eagles' June practices. April, more than 50 yards away, began running toward the ball.
An assistant picked it up. "Put it down!" shouted the 57-year-old April, still chugging downfield. Most of the players were looking on in confusion, but April wanted his kickoff team to go after what, by rule, was a free ball.
After a few moments, Brandon Graham scooped up the rock and stepped into the end zone.
"Touchdown!" April shouted, signaling with both arms.
Players on the field and sideline broke into laughter.
April, a New Orleans native with a slight accent and feverish intensity, hopes to transfer his enthusiasm for one of the NFL's least glamorous jobs to Eagles veterans and rookies. For some roster hopefuls, their embrace of the anonymous blocking and tackling on punts and kickoffs could mean the difference between launching NFL careers and seeing dreams wash out.
"This is a tremendous training ground," said April, hired in January after six years with the Buffalo Bills.
After the Eagles' last voluntary practice, April spoke at length about the challenges of getting players to relish special teams and the potential rewards for those who do.
The coach, with his ebullient mix of wit and fire, sounded like a blend of psychologist, motivational speaker and football philosopher.
"These guys have never been rewarded for playing special teams," April said. "They got their scholarships for other plays, offense and defense. They got drafted for how they played offense and defense, and now they don't know the rewards of special teams. Now you're saying, 'Play special teams,' and just psychologically there's a barrier to overcome."
For many players, special teams was something the backups did.
"You have to be a team-minded guy because so many of your true rewards are going to be done in anonymity," April said. "In general, anonymity is not a great reward for a player."
Of course, tangible rewards - a spot on the roster, an NFL paycheck, a chance to get on the field and improve - also follow.
April stressed the learning potential, especially for a 22-year-old rookie moving from a college game where he stood out to the NFL, where he faces "a collection of the greatest players in all of football in a 15-year period."
"He'll learn all the concepts of playing. He'll learn playing in space. He'll learn toughness. He'll learn angles. He'll create instincts. He'll develop himself into a starter, and that's one of the promising things of using a young guy," April said. "I've seen it happen a million times."
In an ideal world, April would love to have the team's stars playing special teams as well. The way he sees it, a punt or kickoff return should be treated with the same seriousness as any other defensive play. The other guys have the ball, and they're trying to score. You have to stop them.
"The best way to stop him is to have the best players on the field," he said.
But April knows that isn't the reality in a league in which many coaches are loath to risk their big studs on kickoffs and field goals. Instead, April often works with second-stringers and rookies trying to prove themselves.
He remembers coaching Jason Gildon, a Steeler who went on to a long, productive career, and London Fletcher, a prolific Redskins tackler who began with April in St. Louis. Quintin Mikell, an undrafted free agent who is now entering his eighth year with the Eagles, first made his mark on special teams.
Others will get the chance to make an impression when camp opens later this month.
"If they're hungry and if they're good," April said, "they'll be good for our football team."