By Julian Benbow, Globe staff
FOXBOROUGH – So far in training camp, Danny Woodhead, Donte Stallworth, Julian Edelman, and Kyle Arrington have all fielded kickoffs. The Patriots have several core special teams players in camp and the competition among the group is thick.
“I think one thing I think Bill's done ever since I've been with him, that's bringing in competition for everybody,” said special teams coach Scott O'Brien. “Right now, we've got a lot of competition and it will sort it self, and with that not just young players but experienced players. Now only will it make us better with better competition and give people more options but they make each other better in some of the situations you get into with experienced players vs. young players.”
The Patriots were 19th in the league in kick return yards last season. On average they started started their drives from the 29 yard line, ninth in the league according to football outsiders. O'Brien said the unit is always looking for ways to improve.
“Obviously, last year, was an area of still inexperience for us,” O'Brien said. “It's like any phase, at the end of the season you're always looking to improve no matter how good you or or how poor you are. But you're evaluating schemes, personnel what you have, what you can go forward with.
“It's like anything, it's a point of emphasis for us, but it always is. In our case it's a good example of the learning curve of the things that happened the way they happened that were either good or bad, and hopefully we can learn from those things and continue to improve.”
Two players he doesn't have to worry about, though, are place kicker Steve Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko. Gostkowski made 28 of his 33 kicks last year (the most he's made since 2008, when he hit a career-high 36). Mesko averaged 46.5 yards per punt, 11th in the league.
“They go out every day to get their work done,” O'Brien said. “Nobody's ever, every good enough. There's always something that they're focused on. If we come off the field one day and there's something we notice technique-wise that we weren't doing correctly, that becomes the emphasis the next time we go out there.
“But they go out every day to get better, they're pretty good self starters. They know what it takes. They know where they're at. Physically, they're in good shape. They're getting their timing, they're getting their rhythm and trying to improve every single day.
There have been some curveballs in the early stages of camp. On the second day, Aaron Hernandez was back catching punts. On one attempt he looked like an outfielder who lost a fly ball in the sun, calling for fair catch but having to race desperately to yard ahead of him to get under it. O'Brien said the drill helps.
“Any time you're a ball handler, one of the hardest things to do is catch punts. It's not only a great drill for any receiver – as well as punt returners – to focus in on trying to catch a ball that's normally tougher to catch a quarterback throwing that ball.”
Returning punts requires a certain skill set, O'Brien said, but the process of become a good one takes time.
“There's confidence obviously,” he said. “It's like having to run through a door and you don't know what coming through the other end.
"There's a learning process with all returners no matter what experience they've had in the past because of the schemes. It's a learning process besides the physical skills they do have."