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Philadelphia Eagles News

Michael Clay: 'We have to use this new kickoff return as a weapon' 

Michael Clay
Michael Clay

"Special teams is all about adapting to new things."

That's what Special Teams Coordinator Michael Clay said when he met with reporters on Thursday during the Eagles' offseason training program.

Clay and 31 other special teams coordinators are adapting to the biggest adjustment the league has seen in years – the new kickoff rule.

The league voted on and approved a new kickoff rule for the 2024 season at the Annual League Meeting in Orlando, Florida at the end of March. The goal of the new rule is to make kickoff returns safer while bringing back the excitement and explosiveness of the play that the league saw in the early 2000s when more than 80 percent of kickoffs were returned.

"The great thing about it is that 31 other teams are in the same boat," said Clay in response to the new kickoff rule. "It's going to be exciting and interesting all at the same time because you really don't know what to expect because nobody has seen it. Even from an XFL aspect (the spring league deploys a similar kickoff alignment), there's still a lot of nuances from what they implemented to what we are trying to get done in the NFL."

Clay and his assistants, Tyler Brown and Joe Pannunzio, have been spending time retraining veterans and integrating rookies with the new rule.

During the 2024 NFL Draft, the Eagles selected three players with return experience and potential. Even as a defensive back, Cooper DeJean was one of the most electrifying returners in college football, being named Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year in 2023. Running back Will Shipley, who was selected in the fourth round, was Clemson's leading kick returner in his three college seasons, registering 904 kick return yards, and was named a first-team All-ACC specialist in 2022. Finally, wide receiver Ainias Smith will provide another solid option in the return game after he posted 836 punt return yards and 360 kickoff return yards at Texas A&M.

"They all excel in different areas," Clay said. "Cooper is a smooth runner, able to track the ball as a punt returner and has the ability to take it all the way. Ainias is splashy, explosive when he gets the ball in his hands. He is really dynamic when it comes to that. Then with Will, you see from a running back perspective then to a kickoff return perspective. He's downhill, he's one cut, and he still has enough wiggle to make you miss.

"With all these new returners, it gives you an ability to evaluate all of them. Our scouting department does a really good job in terms of bringing in players that elevate our team. So, giving all these guys an opportunity, not just kick return, but also punt return, to see what they can do in a live setting is always going to be advantageous for myself as a coach."

The Eagles welcomed their 2024 draft picks, undrafted rookie free agents, veterans, and tryout players to the team's Rookie Minicamp on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4. Check out the best shots from the weekend!

Of course, the league leader in punt return yards (417) during the 2023 season, Britain Covey, is back for his third season as an Eagle. Covey has experience returning kickoffs, tallying 236 yards in two NFL seasons and 838 yards and a touchdown in his five years at Utah.

While a lot of focus has been on the returners, Clay is also working with the kick coverage team on how to approach the new rule

"We still got to be fundamentally sound when we are blocking because we do have a couple of good returners back there," Clay said. "We have to use this new kickoff return as a weapon, vice versa on kickoff coverage, you still got to go cover these opposing teams, stopping them and their good returners."

Outside of the new kickoff rule, Clay has been working on establishing his special teams unit during spring workouts.

The team added veteran players who are expected to have bigger roles on special teams, like linebackers Zach Baun and Oren Burks and have returning players, like cornerback Josh Jobe and safety Sydney Brown, who were key parts of Clay's top-ranked unit in 2023.

"I lean on everybody," Clay said. "If you were to look back from last year, we leaned on rookies, undrafted rookies, veteran guys, guys coming off the practice squad. It's my job as the coordinator here to make sure all 90 guys are ready and willing to play special teams."

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