Jason Trusnik looks like a linebacker straight from central casting, with a tall frame, thick calves and ripped biceps.
Trusnik, at 6-4 and 250 pounds, has started 25 NFL games at the position, including six last season in Miami.
But that’s not why the Carolina Panthers signed him.
For starters, the Panthers have one of the league’s top linebacking duos in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and used their first-round pick on linebacker Shaq Thompson. The Panthers were more interested in Trusnik’s strong background on special teams, a unit Carolina rebuilt after an abysmal 2014.
Trusnik was one of several offseason additions whose resumes aren’t much to look at, unless you happen to be a special teams coach with nearly 30 years of NFL experience.
Such coaches talk about “four-phase” special teams players, who play on punt and punt return, as well as kickoff and kickoff return. Panthers special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, beginning his 29th season, calls them the “Big 4.”
Trusnik plays six phases, jumping in on the field goal protection and field goal block teams for good measure.
“I’ve played ‘em all,” Trusnik says Wednesday at Wofford. “I’ve been in all six for quite a bit of time, especially all four years in Miami. I enjoy playing them all. And I hope to bring that enjoyment (to Carolina). That one play can really change a game, that 1-on-1 battle and that attitude and effort that you can bring to that one play can help this team.”
In addition to Trusnik, running back Jordan Todman, wide receiver Jarrett Boykin, cornerback Teddy Williams and safety Kurt Coleman have logged a lot of special teams snaps.
While DeHaven is happy to have the help, he says no amount of reinforcements will matter if the returning players don’t do their parts, as well.
“I really think the improvement in all our special teams has to come from the guys that are already here. You’re not going to bring in a couple of guys and make a radical difference,” DeHaven said. “I certainly hope those guys have a chance to help us because they’ve been pretty good in the past. But the guys that are here are the ones that have to improve.”
The Panthers’ return teams suffered last season after Ted Ginn left for Arizona. It’s telling that a clean fair catch became a good play on punt return, which was handled by first-year players Corey Brown and Brenton Bersin.
But the coverage teams were even worse. The Panthers were last in punt coverage, allowing 15.5 yards per return, and next to last in kickoff coverage (32.4 yards).
Collectively, the Panthers finished ahead of only Green Bay in the annual special teams rankings compiled by the Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin.
The low point came in Week 13 at Minnesota, where the Panthers became the first team to allow two punts to be blocked and returned for touchdowns in a half since 1975.
Those numbers led to several offseason changes.
The Panthers reassigned former special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers to a role with the secondary, and promoted DeHaven, who took a leave of absence in the spring while he was treated for prostate cancer.
Meanwhile, general manager Dave Gettleman tried to give DeHaven players to work with.
DeHaven says situational substitutions – offenses using multiple-receiver sets and defenses countering with extra defensive backs and speed pass-rushers – have shrunk the available talent pool for special teams.
DeHaven points to Panthers defensive end Mario Addison, whose special teams reps were limited last season because he was too valuable as an edge rusher in passing situations.
Injuries also took a toll. Special teams mainstay Colin Jones was pressed into duty at nickel when Bené Benwikere was sidelined with a high ankle sprain, and Richie Brockel’s increased snaps at tight end cut into his special teams availability.
“It helps us on special teams if Colin Jones and Mario Addison don’t play as much on defense as they did the last half of the year. They’re outstanding special teams players,” DeHaven said. “It hurt us last year when those two ended up playing so many plays on defense. They became almost an afterthought for what they could do for us on special teams.”
The good news is the Panthers’ specialists – kicker Graham Gano and punter Brad Nortman – have been healthy, productive and are in the prime of their careers.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Gettleman’s decision to surround them with an experienced, special teams core will be beneficial.
“Dave and his guys went out and found some guys that were available that were special teams guys, aces that we need,” Rivera said. “At the same time we want those guys to understand it’s not enough to be an ace. You’ve got to be part of what we do offensively or defensively.
“But there are a few guys whose primary reason to be here, not only to be football players but to help us on special teams.”
Trusnik said it only takes a handful of committed special-teamers to set the tone.
“The great special teams that I’ve been around have had that four, five, six guys that just (say), ‘Hey, together we’re going to get this thing done.’”