Michael Clay

Q. How much time do you spend on the new kickoff rule and try to get a sense of what it’s going to look like and who’s going to fit where? (Reuben Frank)

MICHAEL CLAY: The great thing about it, 31 other teams are in the same boat in terms of that. We have spent a good amount of time, not taking away from other aspects, because obviously it’s a new rule, you have to get used to it. You have to do it more often than not. But you still don’t want to take away from the other aspects of special teams.

We have put some time into it. A lot of long conversations between myself, [Special Teams Assistant] Tyler [Brown], [Assistant Special Teams Coordinator] Joe P [Pannunzio], and even just around the league. I think that’s the cool thing about the special teams community in the NFL, everyone respects each other at a high level and bounces ideas off each other. Hey, what do you see here? How do you see it from peers and other aspects of the league?

It’s going to be exciting and interesting all at the same time because you really don’t know what to expect because nobody’s really even seen it. Even from an XFL aspect, there’s still a lot of nuances from the XFL rules, what they implemented, to what we’re trying to get done here in the NFL.

It’s an exciting time. It’s a lot of retraining for these veteran guys who are so used to NFL rules, that now these new rules just relearning it from the ground up.

Q. You have a lot of players who have return experience. Is it more advantageous because of these rules to have guys with options? (Brooks Kubena)

MICHAEL CLAY: Obviously there’s great options, especially here in May when you have 90 guys. It gives you with all these returners an ability to evaluate all of them, and our scouting department does a really, really good job in terms of bringing in players that help elevate our team. So giving all these guys an opportunity, not just kick return, but also punt return, to see what they can do in a live setting is always going to be advantageous for myself as a coach.

Q. How is the style that you look for in kick return different now than it was in the past? (Zach Berman)

MICHAEL CLAY: That’s a great question. Who knows what the style is going to look like? What we’re really trying to do is to eat up as many yards as possible going north and south and of that nature. But going into this whole thing, we don’t know what it’s going to look like. Everybody else doesn’t know what it’s going to look like.

So it’s always nice to have different types of body types back there to see, okay, this type of body type, this type of runner is giving more advantageous returns compared to this type, and maybe we’ll lean towards that.

Again, with this new kickoff return rule, it’s going to be trial and error. It’s going to be, hey, let’s see what it looks like in a live setting. Going forward, hey, we don’t like this. Let’s try it again. We do like this. Let’s keep this and add to this. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be interesting and fun all in the same while to make sure us, as a special teams unit, helps this team out to move forward.

Q. What about the non-returners? How do you see it impacting the non-returners and those guys, nine guys lining up? How different do you think that’s going to be? (Bob Brookover)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think, when you really peel back this whole thing, it’s still kickoff, kickoff return. In terms of, okay, you’re a non-returner, we’ve still got to be fundamentally sound when we’re blocking. We do have a couple of good returners back there. We have to use this new kickoff return as a weapon.

Vice versa on kickoff coverage, you’ve still got to go cover these opponent teams, these opposite teams of stopping them with some good returners. So it’s still going to go back to day one install of, hey, this is our kickoff coverage overview, this is our kickoff return overview. This is what we expect out of this unit.

Again, I think, when you do have a couple of good returners, it takes the other nine guys to really lock in and be able to use this as a weapon.

Q. What’s the kickoff coverage perspective on that, how often in the past have you had K Jake Elliott try to get pop-ups and try to land them in the corner and not going for touchbacks or whatever? Do you think that’s a strength of his? (Jimmy Kempski)

MICHAEL CLAY: Yeah, I think we all appreciate what [K] Jake [Elliott] does, not just as a field goal kicker, but as a kicker in general. He’s so talented in what he does, and being able to catch wind of this, hey, I have an opportunity to maybe work on a couple of specialty kicks that we can use to help out our kickoff coverage unit.

So [K] Jake [Elliott], [P] Braden [Mann] also has a kickoff background, him being able to do that also helps out. Jake specifically, he has a couple specialty kicks that he’s been working on and things he can lean on as we move forward going against different returners of that nature.

Q. Are you more excited to put together interesting return packages or worry about what might come at you from a coverage standpoint? (Bo Wulf)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think, when you put something new, you first want to be the most intricate or — what’s the perfect word to say this? Eye popping thing. I think for myself we want to keep this for the players to grasp, simple enough, and let’s be good at that. Then we can add some different nuances of things of that nature.

We’ve still also got to start from ground one, hey, these are the new rules. We’ve got to be great at these new rules because the one thing for myself and as a team, there’s new rules, there’s new penalties. One thing we don’t want to do is create new penalties and put our offense, put our defense in a bad predicament.

We’ve got to start with understanding the rules. If you understand the rules, you can move forward to your returns, to your blocking types, all that. Just start from day one, ground one, hey, these are the new rules. We’ve got to be able to be great at these, and then we can move on from that.

Q. Is WR Britain Covey still he top option tat the punt return? (Zach Berman)

MICHAEL CLAY: [WR Britain] Covey is a great option to have as a punt returner. We brought in some guys that do have some punt return abilities. As we move forward, competition usually breeds greatness. Having other guys out there, and also we get to see these guys.

If you remember last year from preseason, we didn’t have the greatest amount of numbers of punt returners, so I had to throw [CB] Zech McPhearson out there. That does him a little disservice as he hasn’t done it since high school. Having all of these possible punt returners allows them to get some film, get some feel, because these guys having come from college, it’s a different type of animal out there. So having them get the most reps as possible.

[WR] Britain Covey, what he’s done the last couple years as an undrafted free agent and a second-year guy to lead the league in yards and be up there in average, kudos to him. He just keeps getting better and better. His mindset as a returner is something that you rarely see outside of those explosive guys. Covey, I’m very happy to have Britain Covey on my punt returners.

Q. Getting kick and punt returns compared to previous years in practice sessions? Does that allow for, because you have more talent, to have more sample size for each guy? (Jeff Neiburg)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think, to get good at it, you’ve got to do it. In practice we may be doing a little bit more team-based thing against each other to see what it looks like then. In preseason seeing that.

Again, what are the percentages like? Was there a huge difference from the 25 to the 30 to the 20 in terms of all that? Again, the more times we practice it, the better we’re going to get at it. Just like anything else in life, the more stuff you practice, the better you’re going to get at it.

The more times we can put it on tape, get better at it, that’s going to help in both kickoff return and kickoff coverage.

Q. You have draft picks with the extensive return experience, talking about CB Cooper DeJean, RB Will Shipley, and WR Ainias Smith, what stands out about each of them as a returner? (Dave Zangaro)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think they all excel in different phases. Cooper [DeJean], he’s just a heck of an athlete. You guys have seen his basketball highlight tape surface around. This guy is a really good football player. Hard to find good football players in general. He’s a smooth runner. Able to track the ball as a punt returner. You saw he has the ability to take it all the way.

[WR] Ainias [Smith], he’s splashy, explosive. When he gets the ball in his hands, it’s really dynamic in terms of that.

Then with [RB] Will [Shipley], Will, you see from a running back perspective then to a kickoff returner’s perspective, he’s downhill. He’s one cut. He’s still got enough wiggle to make you miss. That was evident in the rookie mini-camp, just seeing those guys kind of move around for the first time live in person outside of the film. It’s just something exciting to look forward to when they get back here and mingle in with the veterans.

Q. What’s the most interesting question you’ve gotten from the players about kickoff returns, and what kind of feedback have you gotten from them? (Bob Brookover)

MICHAEL CLAY: I don’t know interesting. I think it’s more curiosity in terms of the questions. A lot has to do with the new rules, the touchback rule, where the ball has to land, where do we line up at? I think it’s just a learning curve for everything. The last few years, it was this. Last year they added the fair catch. So you’ve got to teach them that.

Now everything moved up. It’s just something different they haven’t seen. It’s just more of them being curious to what they expect to see.

So I don’t know if there’s anything super outlandish question-wise, but it’s just more of the curiosity of, hey, what are the rulings, and how are we going to use this to an advantage?

Q. The NFL is going through changes, how much did you lend your voice? How much do you feel like your opinion influenced what happened? (Brooks Kubena)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think throughout the NFL they look for our input. [New Orleans Saints Special Teams Coordinator] Darren Rizzi, [Dallas Cowboys Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel] Bonesy, and [Chicago Bears Special Teams Coordinator] Richard Hightower, I thought they did an unbelievable job representing us as NFL coaches, special teams coaches. We’re able to communicate through them. So when they do go out and try to present it, they’re able to present our thoughts.

I think it’s been a collective effort from all 32 teams.

Q. What were your thoughts entering it? (Brooks Kubena)

MICHAEL CLAY: My thoughts going in was as long as we’re on the same sounding board, I’m all for whatever they want to give out there. I’m not saying like I had anything to say or anything disagreeing. Like, hey, I was with everyone. We all voted on it ourselves in our own little group and everything. Whatever the NFL is ready to pull on board, we’re ready to adapt.

That’s what special teams is. It’s all about adapting to new things, whether it’s a roster change or new rules, we’re ready to adapt in the special teams world.

Q. Is there a player or two that you’re looking to make a big leap here in 2024? Who are you leaning on for leadership? (Andrew DiCecco)

MICHAEL CLAY: I think we’ve added a couple players 245 do have some experience, like [LB] Zack Baun and [LB] Oren Burks, they’ve played in the league for a while, and they’ve played at a high level.

Like I usually tell everyone, I lean on everybody. If you look back to last year, we leaned on rookies, undrafted rookies, veteran guys, guys coming off practice squad. It’s my job as a coach, as a coordinator here, to make sure all 90 guys are ready and willing to play special teams.

So I’ll lean on everyone. But we saw from outstanding play from [CB] Josh Jobe, [S] Sydney Brown last year, [LB] Ben VanSumeren. It’s going to be a collective effort. I think those guys getting a year under their belt have more confidence. They’ll take it on their own to be leaders, and I don’t have to really worry about that because I think this is a very good unit in terms of holding each other accountable and pushing each other to a new level.

Q. With K Jake Elliott, P Braden Mann, and LS Rick Lovato all being extended, how much easier does it make for your job as a coordinator so you can focus on the other things knowing they’ve been extended? (Chris Franklin)

MICHAEL CLAY: It’s always nice to have those three guys back, the continuity. They did an unbelievable job last year. It all starts with Rick [Lovato], then [P] Braden [Mann] did a terrific job coming in after week 2 blending in and finding his groove.

Jake [Elliott] is Jake. The last three years I’ve been here, he’s been an outstanding player. It’s always my job to try to push these guys to take it to another level to help this team out.

Again, having those three together again and the continuity makes it easier and makes the whole team feel pretty confident knowing, when they go out there, they’ve shown that they can produce at a high level. So very exciting and well earned out of those three to get those extensions.

Q. In the Iowa vs. Minnesota game, did CB Cooper DeJean call the fair catch? (Zach Berman)

MICHAEL CLAY: You can ask him that. I’ve got nothing for you.