By ADAM TEICHER
The Kansas City Star
RIVER FALLS, Wis. | Ean Randolph caught a punt at a recent Chiefs training-camp practice and immediately took the ball straight up the field. He didn’t hesitate or dance while waiting for a bigger hole to develop, as his predecessor took to doing.
At that moment, it became evident the Chiefs’ return game will look different without Dante Hall. But will it be better?
“Those are big shoes to fill,” said Randolph, a rookie free agent from South Florida. “He was my favorite to watch. He would make people look bad.”
Randolph was describing the Hall of previous seasons, but not of last year. He clearly lost his ability to affect a game, he and the Chiefs became disenchanted with each other, and finally in the spring he was traded to St. Louis.
Randolph, small and quick like Hall, is at the head of a line of punt returners that also includes wide receiver Samie Parker. Another receiver, Jeff Webb, will probably be the kickoff returner.
The Chiefs need that tandem to give them more than Hall did last season. Their offense, possibly with a young starting quarterback in Brodie Croyle and without the star running back in Larry Johnson, could struggle, at least early in the season.
“We have to be a better return team,” coach Herm Edwards said. “Our return game is going to be a big factor for us.
“We’ve got some guys who will go (up the field). They’ll get it, hit the seam and run.”
That was a not-so-subtle dig at Hall, who was a favorite of former head coach Dick Vermeil’s but never meshed with Edwards and his special-teams coach, Mike Priefer.
“He was treated differently by the previous staff,” Preifer said. “This head coach and myself are not into babying players. I’m going to treat them like men and treat them with respect. I guess it wasn’t enough. He was in the tank a lot. His attitude wasn’t what it should have been. After a while, I don’t know if he wanted to buy into what the head coach was preaching or what I was trying to get done.”
They probably won’t have that problem with Randolph, a wide-eyed rookie. He played only one season in major college but made the most of it. He led the Big East and was fourth in the country with a 14.8-yard average.
“I love returning punts,” he said. “You don’t have time to think. You just do what you’ve got to do to try to make people miss.”
The Chiefs, with their desperate need for a punt returner after trading Hall, contemplated drafting Randolph in the seventh round. They passed but made him a priority in free-agency.
“I ranked the top 18 or 20 punt returners available in the draft, and he was probably eighth or ninth,” Priefer said. “The reason he was that low is that he played only one year in (major) college. If he had played for two or three years, he would have been a lot higher.
“He has some toughness. He’ll catch the ball in a crowd. He’s very, very quick with that first step. He’s getting better at catching the ball. He’s still not as consistent as he needs to be.”
Parker and a reserve cornerback, Justin Phinisee, are fall-back candidates. Both are more reliable punt catchers than Randolph but don’t provide his big-play ability.
“With a rookie returner, we’ve got to make very sure that we trust him and that he’s not going to turn the ball over,” Priefer said. “I don’t care if he makes big plays the first couple of weeks. I just want to make sure he’s going to catch the ball.”
Edwards said the Chiefs might use different returners depending on the situation. Randolph would return when fielding punts near midfield, when a turnover wouldn’t necessarily be costly.
They would then use a veteran like Parker or even Eddie Kennison when fielding a punt deeper in their own end of the field.
“Hopefully, we’ll find just one guy,” Edwards said. “We don’t want to have to do it that way, but if we have to, we have to.”
Webb showed ability as a kickoff returner while Hall was injured last season. He had a 50-yard return in a narrow win over Arizona.
“Dante taught me so much,” Webb said. “I had meetings with him every Thursday at his house during the season to watch film. We looked at a lot of things other teams try to do to stop returns. He took me under his wing. Now I’m using what I learned from him to my advantage.
“My thing is to hit it hard and if you catch me, you catch me. I can’t be like Dante. I’m not going to make as many people miss. I’m not going to outrun as many people. I’m not a shake-and-bake guy. I’m a straight-forward runner.”