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New Faces Battle for Skins Specialist Spots

Camp of 'unfamiliarity' for Redskins special teams



    New Faces Battle for Skins Specialist Spots
    Getty Images
    James Dearth is back in the NFL as he battles to be the Skins long snapper.

    The unfamiliar face at Redskins training camp is James Dearth, a veteran long snapper happy to have a job after an offseason of looking for work.

    Dearth, who played for the Jets the past nine seasons, practiced for the first time Sunday -- and he should feel right at home. It seems nearly everything about the Redskins special teams is new and changeable.

    The team has a punter in camp who didn't play last season because of an injury. The kicker who has only four games of NFL experience. This year's punt returner will be different, and maybe the kickoff return man as well.

    "I don't look at it as an uncertainty at all -- I look at it as unfamiliarity, really," said special teams coach Danny Smith. "But the certainty is there -- we've got some players who can play -- it's just being unfamiliar with them as players that have not been in the heat of the battle of the games."

    That's a nice way to spin it, but it would be much more comfortable to have an old reliable in at least one of the skill positions.

    For years, that old reliable was Ethan Albright, the ginger-haired "Red Snapper"' who had been around since 2001 and didn't have a bad snap during his nine seasons with the team. But Albright, 39, wasn't re-signed because coach Mike Shanahan wanted to go younger. So the team opened camp with 23-year-old Nick Sundberg, who is looking to catch on with an NFL team after spending last year's camp with the Carolina Panthers.

    Sundberg hasn't had a bad snap in a game since high school, he said. But he's been inconsistent in camp with the Redskins. Dearth is 34 and has a solid track record from his Jets days.

    Ironically, the Jets, who also opted for an unproven snapper, purged Dearth in a youth movement.

    "When you're there that long, it feels like home, so it hurt a little bit," Dearth said. "But at the same time, it's a job. You've got to look at it that way and look at this as another opportunity to come out and play."

    Dearth was a distracted player last year, and for good reason. His grandfather died before the season began, then his father was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer and was given a year or two to live. Then his mother died from heart failure in November. Dearth is a devout Christian and was a popular figure in the Jets' locker room, and it was all he could do to keep his troubles from affecting him.

    "When you start looking back at it, it was tough because you're really thinking about your family quite a bit," Dearth said. "But at the same time you kind of tell yourself, 'My mom, she didn't want anybody worrying about her.' She'd want me focusing on my job and doing what I'm supposed to do."

    The only punter in camp is also 34 years old. Josh Bidwell was a mainstay first with Green Bay and later with Tampa Bay before surgery on his right hip forced him to sit out the 2009 season. Bidwell has looked strong in camp and had a good game Friday night in the Redskins' preseason opener against Buffalo, offering a ray of punting hope for a franchise that used four different punters in regular season games in 2009.

    The lone kicker is Graham Gano, the latest possible solution for a position that has been a revolving door for some 15 years. Gano joined the Redskins late last season after playing in the UFL and hit all four of his field goal attempts. He's also having a good camp, but he didn't get a chance to try one Friday night.

    By contrast, the camp has a long queue of return men angling for a job. With Rock Cartwright (kickoffs) and Antwaan Randle El (punts) not re-signed, the Redskins had nine players fielding kickoffs or punts Sunday. Six are new to the team.

    Devin Thomas gradually took over the kickoff return duties toward the end of last season, but he had trouble handling the opening kickoff Friday night and didn't look smooth catching another kick. Rookie Terrence Austin averaged 24.5 yards on two kickoff returns, and others will no doubt get a shot in Saturday's exhibition against the Baltimore Ravens.

    Friday's special teams highlight was undrafted rookie Brandon Banks' 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, but Banks also muffed a punt and is considered very raw. Veteran cornerback Phillip Buchanon is listed atop the depth chart, but he returned only four punts over the past two years with Tampa Bay and Detroit.

    It all adds up to some interesting drama for the special teams coach over the next few weeks.

    "We've got some pretty good players at those positions," Smith said, "and it's our job as coaches to pick the right ones."

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