Both special teams coordinator Bobby April and punt returner Damaris Johnson are hoping for a happy homecoming when they return to their hometown of New Orleans for Monday night's game.
April said Friday that rookie receiver Damaris Johnson will return punts for the Eagles against the Saints. Johnson was inactive for the past two contests as he was replaced by fellow wideout Mardy Gilyard, who is out for Monday's game with a hamstring injury. Johnson was one of the most prolific return men in NCAA history when he left college, but has had a difficult time finding success in the pros. Johnson is averaging 6.0 yards per punt return with a long of 13 yards.
Despite a slow start to his season, April doesn't believe Johnson needed time on the bench to improve his play. But he does think Johnson's time out of the game will prove to be beneficial.
"From what I know of Damaris, I don't think he needed any external motivation," April said. "I think he's already motivated. I think he's really motivated, I think he's really a competitor. I don't necessarily think he needed that, but I do think you have a chance to mature, no matter what, you have a chance to gain a greater appreciation for what you're doing. And when you're grateful, you tend to be more productive. And I think that gives him that opportunity."
April added that Johnson, while he has not had game action since Week 6, has been catching punts and has been working with the punt return unit in practice. April has faith in his returner, but is looking for Johnson to be sound fundamentally when he decides to take off. Making plays, he said, isn't the issue.
"I'd like to see him manage the game properly; make good decisions on getting to the ball," April said. "Balls that he should catch I want to see him catch. Ones he should let go I want to see him let go ... He's got the running skills. If we give him some space, he'll make something happen running it. That's kind of a given. We just have to give him the space."
Kick returner Brandon Boykin said in his rookie diary this week that the kick return unit has been coming together as of late. April agreed with his returner's assessment and is hoping those improvements bear fruit against the Saints.
"Guys are playing better fundamentally, our production is better. So I do think we're close," April said. "We want to keep driving for the summit. And hopefully we'll stay close to it if we ever get close. We're still not close, but I do think we'll break one some time. Hopefully this game, hopefully soon. And that'll certainly help us win the game."
Boykin will have his opportunities to help his team in the return game. The Saints are 25th in the league at covering kicks, allowing 23 yards per return. And Boykin himself has improved in the return game. Against the Falcons he had an impressive return for 28 yards, and has shown improved burst and awareness over the past few games.
The Eagles' special teams groups have struggled to give the offense positive field position this season. Fixing this will be critical for a Monday night affair against the explosive New Orleans Saints.
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