ASHBURN, Va. – The unfamiliar face at Washington Redskins training camp Sunday was James Dearth, a veteran long snapper happy to put on a uniform again after an offseason looking for work. He was signed after the young snapper already in camp started missing the target in practice.
Dearth should feel right at home. It seems nearly everything about the Redskins special teams is new and changeable.
The punter didn't play at all last season because of an injury. The kicker has only four games of NFL experience. This year's punt returner will be different, and maybe the kickoff return man as well. The Redskins haven't exactly been a hallmark of special teams stability over the years, but this season there's no such thing as a surefire lock until the 53-man roster is set next month.
"I don't look at it as an uncertainty at all — I look at it as unfamiliarity, really," special teams coach Danny Smith said. "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 red-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 says he hasn't had a bad snap in a game since high school, but he's been inconsistent in camp with the Redskins. Dearth is 34 and has a solid track record, having spent the past nine seasons with the New York Jets.
Ironically, Dearth was purged in a youth movement by the Jets, who also opted for an unproven snapper.
"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."
Notes: WR Malcolm Kelly remains sidelined with a hamstring injury and won't practice until Tuesday at the earliest. ... RT Jammal Brown (hip) and QB Richard Bartel (hamstring) returned to practice. ... Having reviewed the video, Shanahan had a favorable review for Albert Haynesworth, who is playing second-string nose tackle after a prolonged saga over workouts and conditioning tests. "What I usually do is look at how hard people play," Shanahan said. "Albert played eight plays, and in those eight plays he gave everything he had, so I was pleased." Haynesworth continued to work mostly with the second unit at practice Sunday.