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April 30, 2012

Special teams can help make NFL

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Former Auburn defensive back Neiko Thorpe did not hear his name called in the 2012 NFL Draft. Neither did former linebacker Eltoro Freeman.

But both will have chances to make an NFL team.

Thorpe has signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs. Freeman has been invited to Green Bay for a tryout with the Packers.

If the two want to increase their chances of making the teams' 53-man rosters, their former college teammates have some advice for them.

"Show that you can play special teams," said Antonio Coleman. "Unless you are a first-round pick, a top pick, playing special teams is what gets you on the roster."

Coleman knows first-hand. The former Auburn defensive end, now with the Arizona Cardinals, spent the last two seasons in Buffalo. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Coleman played in a total of 11 games and recorded nine tackles for the Bills. And the reason he had the chance to play, to be on the all-important roster, is simple to Coleman.

"I could play special teams," he said. "Playing special teams is where it all starts. It's really important to me. There is no doubt being able to play special teams and being good at it is how I made Buffalo's roster."

Coleman isn't the only former Auburn player that has used playing special teams to make an NFL roster as an advantage. The Tigers' top receiver from the 2010 national championship season, Darvin Adams, was promoted from the Carolina Panthers' practice squad to the playing roster in 2011.

Adams appeared in his first two career NFL games last season, and both were because of special teams.

"Playing special teams has a big effect on whether or not you make the roster," said Adams. "If you can play more than one position, on more than one unit, you are more valuable as a player."

Adams said he informed the Panthers he would be willing to do whatever it took to make the roster.

"I told them I would be the holder," said Adams. "As long as it gets me on the roster, I will do it. The thing about special teams, at least to me, is I like it. It is fun to me, and it is also another way to help out the team. I've never been the selfish type. I will help the team out any way I can."

Adams and Coleman's advice to Thorpe and Freeman isn't new. They all heard it while at Auburn. Special teams coordinator Jay Boulware made sure of it.

"He always said, 'The best way to get on an NFL team is by being good on special teams.' He preached that to us a lot and that helped me out," said Adams.

Adams is planning to work on both coverage units for the Panthers in 2012, and could also get a look at returning punts. He did it all while at Auburn.

"Coach Boulware gave me opportunities to play different spots and that has helped me out," said Adams. "Before he came in, I wasn't doing things the way I should have been doing them.

"He helped me out, showed me the proper ways, and gave me the tools to be successful on special teams in the NFL like I was at Auburn."

Boulware said Adams is one of the most versatile players he's coached.

"Darvin was a special teams phenom," said Boulware. "Once I got to Auburn and got to work with him myself, I realized what kind of talent he really was. I would have loved to put Darvin out there every single time, but he was our best receiver in 2010. But he still started on our punt team, and any time I had a kickoff in that national championship year where I said we have to stop them, shut them down right here, Darvin would be on the field for us.

"He's just really talented and could do so much. I have no doubt he made that team because of how good he is on special teams. He made that team because he can be a great backup receiver and a great special teams player."

Coleman and Adams aren't alone in being former Tigers that have benefitted in the NFL from playing special teams. Former running back Mario Fannin and former linebacker Josh Bynes, among others, could be added to the list. Fannin recently signed with the Denver Broncos. Bynes is with the Baltimore Ravens. Even former longsnapper Josh Harris was recently picked up by the Atlanta Falcons.

"Most special teams coordinators, they look for a guy that can play on at least two special teams," said Boulware. "If you are going to make the squad and aren't the multi-million dollar player, you have to play on at least two special teams.

"Our guys can do that, especially guys like Darvin and Mario. Like Darvin, Mario can do a lot of things. He has a lot of abilities. He's got the power, the speed and the hands, and he can play special teams. He's a two- or three-team special teams guy in addition to being a running back. He has the qualities teams are looking for."

Fannin said he's glad he took Boulware's advice on playing special teams.

"A lot of players become successful just from special teams, they make rosters because they can play special teams," said Fannin. "If you are good at your position and can also play special teams, it gives you the edge over a guy at your position who doesn't play special teams, or isn't as good on special teams.

"Playing special teams is something I take very seriously and I feel like that is what helped me make the roster. Coach Boulware told us that if you are able to go in there (NFL) and be productive at your position and play special teams it would be easier to make the team. He was right."



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