METAIRIE — Having a normal offseason program this spring and summer would have made things a whole lot easier for NFL special teams coordinators like Greg McMahon.
McMahon, who is entering his fourth season as the leader of the New Orleans Saints’ special teams, molds his various kick and kick-coverage teams in the spring around a core group of returnees with a few rookies and other newcomers mixed in.
But because of the lockout this year, he didn’t get a chance to work with any players, including veteran free agents, until training camp. Even then, free-agent signees couldn’t practice until one week into camp.
“Here’s how we looked at it: We’re all behind the eight-ball as far as that goes — all 32 teams,” McMahon said. “But certainly, you would probably know your personnel a little better at this time of the year.”
The delay, however, hasn’t wiped the smile off McMahon’s face.
He’s looking forward to a new season in which he’s anticipating continued improvement from his veteran kicker and punter: Garrett Hartley and Thomas Morstead.
On top of that, McMahon hopes to have his main punt and kickoff returners as well as one of his top cover men healthy for an entire season.
One year ago, punt returner Reggie Bush, who’s now in Miami, was out for eight games with a fractured leg, and kickoff returner Courtney Roby missed the final three games and postseason because of a concussion. Safety Chris Reis, one of their top cover men, spent 12 games on injured reserve.
Taking Bush’s place will likely be former San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles, one of the league’s most dangerous kick returners.
“I’m excited, absolutely,” a smiling McMahon said. “Getting a guy like (kickoff returner) Courtney Roby back from an injury and signing a guy like Darren Sproles is exciting for us. I really like this group of players we have.
“We have a lot of guys coming back, some veteran core guys along with an influx of these young guys,” he said. “We’re excited about getting this thing to gel, and getting ready for the season. Certainly, we’ve identified some concerns that we have to get worked out.”
The biggest concerns are in covering kicks and returning punts.
In 2010, the Saints ranked 28th in kickoff coverage, allowing 24.1 yards per return, and were 24th in punt coverage as opponents averaged 11.9 per return.
The Saints averaged just 7.8 yards per punt return, leaving them in 23rd in the final league stats, and were in the middle of the pack in kickoff returns at 15th with 22.7 yards a return.
“I think we’re in good shape as far as where we’re at right now, with the guys learning the system,” McMahon said. “We’ve slowed our installations down a little bit because we’ve got new guys playing new positions.
“It’s not a problem from a scheme standpoint, but you have to learn all the techniques and all the fundamentals that go with the position. We’re making sure everybody understands exactly what we want so they execute properly.”
While Roby has been good at returning kickoffs, averaging 25.1 yards a return in three seasons with the Saints, Sproles will be a threat to take both jobs.
The shifty 5-foot-8, 181-pound Sproles has averaged 25.1 yards on kickoff returns and 8.2 yards on punt returns in his career and has brought back four kicks — two punts and two kickoffs — for touchdowns.
“I think it’s exciting for all of us,” McMahon said of the addition of Sproles. “Heck, he’s been a productive guy at San Diego and we’re excited to have him. He definitely fits a need that we have, but we like some of our other guys that we have like Courtney, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.”
On the kicking side of it, the Saints are set with Morstead and Hartley.
Morstead ranked fourth in the NFL in gross punting average at 45.9 yards per kick and was 10th in net punting average (38.4).
Hartley shook off a missed field goal that cost the Saints in a Week 3 game with the Atlanta Falcons to have a good season. He came on strong to finish 20-of-25 in the regular season and was 3-for-3 in their playoff game.
All told, he made his final 13 field goals and 19 of his last 20 and was rewarded with a new five-year contract before the lockout began.