Coaches Q&A: Tillman Talks Kickers, Punters

Chris Kluwe

Special teams coordinator Rusty Tillman is enjoying his unit's best season in the Mike Tice era with a rookie punter having a spectacular season and a veteran kicker proving to be strong in clutch situations. Tillman talks about the strengths and, yes, the weaknesses of those two, along the improvement in the return game.

Rusty Tillman enters his third year on the Vikings coaching staff, but is the senior member of the group with 31 years of NFL experience as a coach and player. Tillman is in his 23nd season in the league after spending eight as a player with the Washington Redskins.

Considered one of the NFL's elite special teams players during his career, Tillman served as defensive coordinator for Seattle from 1992-94, Tampa Bay in 1994 and Indianapolis in 1998. He became a head coach when he took over the XFL's New York/New Jersey Hitmen for their spring 2001 season.

After a two-year absence, Tillman returned to the NFL in 2003 with the Vikings. In his first season with the Vikings, Tillman was charged with molding a kicking game around a rookie punter (Eddie Johnson) and a place kicker (Aaron Elling) who had not kicked in a regular-season NFL game.

Tillman played college football at Northern Arizona from 1967-69, then played in the NFL for the Washington Redskins from 1970-77. His coaching career started at Seattle, where he coached special teams (1979-82), special teams/tight ends (1983-87) special teams/linebackers (1988-91), and defensive coordinator/ linebackers (1992-94). He was Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator in 1995, was Oakland's special teams coach from 1996-97, and the Colts' defensive coordinator in 1998. After spending a year in the XFL in 2000, he returned to the NFL in 2003.

Tillman, who was born Feb. 27, 1946 in Beloit, Wis., and his wife, Lori, have three sons — Joshua, Jason and Jacob — and a daughter, Rachael. Tillman also has another daughter, Emily, and a granddaughter, Sofia.



Q: What have both Mewelde Moore and Koren Robinson brought to the return game this year?

A:
Koren Robinson is probably the most explosive kickoff returner I've ever had. He makes some yards on his own and that gets the blockers more excited. They want to do a better job because they know a big play is always a possibility. It's really helped the return game. Mewelde started off really slow and he's worked his way into it. He's starting to understand what it takes to be a good punt returner. We talked about it before the game last week. If you catch the ball and you've got cushion between you and the coverage, you hit it hard straight up the field. The coverage tends to freeze.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about punter Chris Kluwe, and that he's having an All-Pro season. What caught your eye about Kluwe when you saw him in the preseason?

A:
I can't take credit for Kluwe, but what caught my eye was his strong long. When we played Seattle in the preseason he had punted pretty good in the game but nothing like he was hitting in the warm-ups. He was hitting monster balls during warm-ups. But you have to give credit to (scout) Ryan Monnens and those guys down there for Kluwe.

Q: He has a great leg, but he appears a bit raw when trying to kick it inside the 20 while not letting it go into the end zone.

A:
He really is raw. He has a lot to learn about punting. He's just a rookie. He's a great raw talent, but he has to get better with his direction and pooch punting. He'll get better as he goes along.

Q: Is having a punter kick for the corners a lost art in the NFL?

A:
I think there's a reason it's a lost art. The pooch punt offers you three different probabilities. One, the guy fair catches the ball inside the 10. It's easier to execute than the out-of-bounds punt. Plus you have the chance for a fumble when you pooch punt. You don't have that chance when you kick it out of bounds. So I think that's why it's evolved that way.

Q: How has Paul Edinger been doing on his kickoffs?

A:
He's improved his kickoffs a lot this year. He needs to become more consistent with his field goals; he's at 67 percent — 14 out of 21. Your kicker should be about 80 percent. But on the other hand, he's had two huge field goals for us that won games.

Q: Is Edinger more of an indoor kicker?

A:
I don't know if I can say that right now. I haven't been around long enough. We haven't been outdoors enough for us to say. I don't think there have been enough opportunities for us to make that statement yet.

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