When the Miami Dolphins drafted Jakeem Grant in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL draft, most fans yawned. After all, how much is the 186th overall pick in the draft really expected to contribute, especially when the guy is 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds soaking wet?
When a player that size gets hit, he typically goes down hard, and that is always a fear for fans. But the trouble with Grant is, you have to catch him first. And that’s not easy.
Starting the season as a kick returner, Grant took a punt return 74 yards to the endzone in his fifth game as a pro, in one of the more memorable runs of the season. That play actually topped the list of “NFL Now's” Top 5 Most Athletic Plays of the 2016 season.
But the former electric receiver from Texas Tech had one downfall, and it turned out to be a big one: his hands. Muffed catches, dropped punts and bobbled balls had coaches and fans tearing their hair out as several miscues cost the team dearly in field position or outright turnovers during games. So guess what Grant has worked on the most this offseason?
“We talked a lot about that last year,” said special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “Punt returning is one of those things, if you haven't done it before, it's a very difficult task. It's not something that's going to come natural to a lot of people. I've seen some great, great, great talented players that couldn't catch a punt. A bunch of them. Hall of Famers. It wasn't in their DNA, if you will. It's one of those deals where … it takes, really, an awful lot of practice time and getting a guy used to it.”
And practice is what Grant has been doing. A lot of practice. Grant didn’t take a break at the end of the season, choosing to work on catching balls continually, even flying punter Matt Darr to Texas to kick balls to him.
“We videotape everything that he does,” Rizzi said. “He's watching the videos every day. He goes out, he probably catches about 30-40 balls prior to practice. He probably catches about 10 to 15 within practice, catches another 30 or 40 after practice again … on average say he's catching 75 punts a day, either off of a live foot or off of a JUGS machine … During the OTAs here, he'll catch about 750 balls. When you factor in the couple days for minicamp, he's going to catch roughly somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 balls.”
And throwing another wrench into the works was Rizzi, bringing in an additional punter for camp to give the Dolphins both a right-footed and left-footed kicker, so that Grant can get used to the different rotation of the ball coming off each punter’s foot.
Has he caught every single one?
“No,” says Rizzi. “He has not caught every single one, but he has certainly looked much improved. The nice thing right now in camp is we have two punters, a right and a lefty … it's great to have a guy from each side and getting (Grant) as much work as possible.”
While not perfect, Rizzi says that he can definitely see the improvement, and the hard work is paying off.
“I think he has been really mature about it,” adds Rizzi. “(He) looks a lot more comfortable back there. Again, we'll see how that progresses moving forward. But (he is) certainly a lot more comfortable than he was a year ago. He's still a work in progress, but looking good.”
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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