ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — Dexter McCluster faded back as if he was in slow motion, the Chiefs wide receiver settling under a booming ball off the foot of Saints punter Thomas Morstead in the middle of the Superdome.
Once he had secured it, McCluster started up field. He angled to his right and found a crease to the sideline, running almost untouched 55 yards before he was finally brought down.
McCluster popped right up with a grin visible through his facemask.
“It’s been a while since I returned punts and I wanted it. I was anxious and nervous but at the same time, I was excited,” McCluster said after practice this week. “When the hard work pays off, it makes you come back and work harder.”
Even on special teams, which so often hasn’t been all that special in Kansas City.
The Chiefs haven’t returned a punt for a touchdown since McCluster took one back against the Chargers in September 2010. The last time they brought back a kickoff for a touchdown was November 2011, when Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles was still forging his name in the league.
Everything about this season is a fresh starts, though.
The Chiefs have a new general manager in John Dorsey, a new coach in Andy Reid and, quite naturally, a new person directing special teams. That would be Dave Toub, whose name may not be well known to the casual football fan but whose work is extremely well known: He’s the guy who tutored dangerous Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester.
Toub was hired by Reid while he was assembling the rest of his coaching staff, and so far he’s been busily piecing together the Chiefs’ special teams units. McCluster appears to be the choice to return punts, but there are still half a dozen options for returning kickoffs.
He hopes to settle on a couple of primary options by the third preseason game.
“We have high expectations for this group,” Toub said. “They’ve worked their butts off and it’s good to see guys work hard and reap rewards in the game.”
The rewards were plain to see last Friday night in New Orleans.
McCluster began the proceedings with a bang. Devon Wylie brought another punt back 22 yards early in the second quarter, and then had a nice kickoff return to start the second half.
Knile Davis provided an exclamation mark on the Chiefs’ preseason opener when the rookie running back, who had never before fielded a kickoff, returned one 79 yards late in the game.
“Probably the most important thing is we had 11 guys on the field every time. That’s the hardest part,” Toub said. “You have so much turnover and so many guys you want to look at. But I was really happy with the way the guys responded. It’s a pretty good start.”
Toub brings a unique perspective to the job of coaching special teams.
He spent time as a strength coach early in his career, and then was a defensive line coach at Missouri in the late ’90s. But for the past 13 years, Toub has been dedicated solely to special teams, working with Reid in Philadelphia before joining the Bears from 2004-12.
“The thing with him is he’s a guy who really, really loves special teams,” McCluster said, “and he knows if he can get 11 guys on the kickoff return, punt return, whatever it may be, we can be game changers, and special teams can win games.”
It’s not as if Chiefs special teams have been useless the past few years. Ryan Succop has been a dependable kicker, and Dustin Colquitt is coming off a Pro Bowl season that landed him a five-year, $18.75 million contract that includes nearly $9 million guaranteed.
“I think people are saying, ‘Oh no! Dave is in Kansas City,’” Colquitt said. “He’s holding us accountable — don’t make the same mistake twice, that’s what he believes in. He likes to keep it simple, and he wants guys to play fast.”
Just like Hester played in Chicago. He returned 12 punts and five kicks for touchdowns, and landed in three Pro Bowls, while Toub was coaching the special teams there.
“That’s what we hope for,” Toub said. “That’s what we strive for.”