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Bubba Ventrone dealing with change on special teams

Here are three takeaways from Cleveland’s new special teams coordinator as the Browns prepare to face Cincinnati in Week 1.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns will be sporting a new look on special teams when the season opens on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Out are overrated special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and inconsistent placekicker Cade York. In their place are Bubba Ventrone, who made a name for himself while leading a Top 10 special teams unit while with the Indianapolis Colts, and veteran placekicker Dustin Hopkins, who will presumably provide a reasonable level of calm when called upon to execute a kick.

Unfortunately, the Browns will once again be without returner Jakeem Grant Sr., who was lost to a season-ending injury for the second year in a row after rupturing his patellar tendon in the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The loss of Grant has Ventrone in “next man up” mode regarding the return game, with running back Jerome Ford listed as the kickoff returner and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones as the punt returner on the initial depth chart.

With that in mind, here are three things that Ventrone had to say today as the Browns prepare for the season opener against the Bengals. (All quotes via a team-provided transcript):

About the return game …

The only possible silver lining to Grant’s injury is that the Browns had to go through the same scenario last season, so Ford (who returned 30 kickoffs) and Peoples-Jones (who has 48 punt returns in his three seasons with the Browns) are not walking into the situation as newbies.

Ford did miss several weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury, but Ventrone said he’s been working to get the second-year back up to speed:

“I would say for ball handler specifically, for us he’s just got to get as many catches pre- and post-practice, especially off the live foot. That’s important. He’s done a good job of that since he’s been back and excited to be able to see him moving forward. Jerome does a lot of good things. He’s got good vision, he’s an aggressive runner. He’s fast, he’s got good contact balance. He’s strong. I think he’s got some toughness to him.”

As for Peoples-Jones, Ventrone highlighted DPJ’s judgment as a returner:

“I’ve been around a good number of ball handlers, punt returners. Guys like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, that really tracked – all those guys, did a really good job of tracking the ball in the air … and adjusting. I think that Donovan’s judgment is excellent. I think he’s got really good hands. He does a pretty good job setting up on the ball. Very reliable ball handler.”

About the new kicker …

Hopkins may have kicked in 109 games so far in his nine-year career, but he has only kicked at Cleveland Browns Stadium once, which was in 2020. He was only two-of-three on extra points that day and did not attempt a field goal.

He may be a veteran, but Hopkins has yet to experience what it is like kicking in Cleveland, which can prove problematic for even the best kickers. Hopkins did kick in Washington for seven years, so at least he has not been primarily a dome kicker, and did have the opportunity to kick at the stadium last week during practice.

Those two things have helped Ventrone stay at ease with his new kicker:

“So it was good to be able to get down there last week and hit in the stadium. That was his first time that we had really live operation, and it was at the stadium, so that was good. He hit the ball well. The thing that works to his advantage just overall as a specialist, as a kicker, even though he had been in LA the last two years, he’s been in Washington the previous however many, so he’s kicked outside, he’s been in the elements. He understands wind patterns and wind conditions. So that I think bodes to his advantage and our advantage as far as acquiring a guy this late in the game. He’s a true professional, he really is. He’s worked really hard at getting comfortable with those guys. So it’s been good.”

About the new rule on kickoffs …

The NFL adopted a rule for the 2023 season allowing returners on kickoffs to signal for a fair catch and have the offense start the possession on the 25-yard line.

The Browns did not try out the new rule during the preseason, but Ventrone assured everyone on Thursday that there is a plan in place and it will be executed accordingly each week:

“Every game, every play, every situation is different. I’m not going to really give you my strategy on how I see that going, but we’ll be prepared and our players will be prepared to handle all the situations that arise throughout a game, throughout some type of whatever scenario you want to bring up. But we’ll be prepared and ready for whatever we need to do to handle that particular situation.”

The Browns have some new faces on special teams this year, with some of the changes being by their choosing and some forced on them by fate.

Come Sunday, everyone will have the first opportunity to discover if those changes are going to be for the better.

How confident are you in Cleveland’s special teams unit with all the changes since last season?