Rams’ Hekker leads NFL in net punting average

ST. LOUIS (AP) — During last week’s game against the Cardinals, Johnny Hekker got in Patrick Peterson’s face. The St. Louis Rams love the attitude their productive punter brings to the game.

Hekker took extra pride in keeping the Cardinals’ dangerous return man in first gear after some jawing early in last week’s game, and Peterson managed 3 yards on two attempts. Though he’s aiming for the sideline, Hekker is not afraid to mix it up, which makes him a rarity among specialists.

“Johnny, I would have to say is one of my favorites on this team,” said rookie wide receiver Stedman Bailey, who’s been a key member on special teams. “Punters usually want absolutely nothing to do with the returner and then we have Johnny, who wants everything to do with it.”

The Rams (5-8) showed their appreciation at practice Friday. Several players and media relations people wore T-shirts touting Hekker for the Pro Bowl that read, “Help Hekker Get Lei’d. Vote for the real Johnny Football.”

When Hekker saw one of the shirts hanging in his locker stall before practice he was “a little shocked, surprised, embarrassed.”

“Just seeing teammates wearing the shirts, it’s cool,” Hekker said. “It’s just fun to see the guys have my back.”

Hekker leads the NFL in net punting, averaging 43.9 yards. He doesn’t hit it the longest, ranking ninth overall, but the average return is a pedestrian 2.9 yards.

Every week, it seems there’s an elusive foe to avoid. This week’s challenge is the Saints’ Darren Sproles.

“You never really sleep on a guy, because if they weren’t big-play guys they wouldn’t be back there,” Hekker said. “A guy like Peterson, he’s never down until they blow the whistle.

“And we’ve got another slippery guy this week, so it’s going to be really important we get a lot of bodies downfield.”

One plus: Hekker doesn’t have to worry about Tavon Austin. His rookie teammate had a 98-yard return against Indianapolis.

It would be just fine with the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Hekker if his leg did all the work this week. He was a bit sheepish about confronting Peterson.

“I’ll say that’s not very common with me,” he said. “I might have lost my head a little bit. But I’m competitive and I hate to be gotten the better of.”

Hekker took exception when he said Peterson rubbed it in after a 9-yard return in the third quarter of last week’s 30-10 loss.

“He had a nice return and had something to say to me and I didn’t really like that very much,” Hekker said. “It’s all under the bridge, it’s not important now.

“Moving forward, I’ll probably keep my mouth shut.”

Hekker was undrafted out of Oregon State, where he was a four-year starter and had a 60-yard-plus punt in six games his senior year. The Rams prized him for his directional punting.

He’s got a nice arm, too, throwing a touchdown pass on a fake in his rookie season.

Hekker is not a special teams demon like former Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins, a former linebacker who often was in on the tackle. He has one stop this year, although he got a chance to throw himself on top of the pile against Arizona.

He regretted it a bit the day after.

“It’s funny just because being a punter you wake up and realize ‘Man, I was in on one hit and my body’s real sore,’” Hekker said. “I can’t imagine the guys who are in on every single play. I have a ton of respect for those guys.”

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