Like a lonely scarecrow in a rural cornfield, Domenik Hixon stood alone at one end of a practice field Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, awaiting a football that was set to soar skyward from a JUGS machine some 75 yards away.
His teammates had already retired to the adjacent headquarters building to socialize, shower and scrub up for post-practice meetings. Hixon, though, wouldn’t do that.
So he lingered in the west end zone of the south practice field, with only the gusting winds and the stentorian bark of special-teams coordinator Scott O’Brien’s voice shattering the mid-afternoon silence. Football after football flew towards Hixon, with most chasing him to the sidelines of the field, allowing him to work on darting his way out of tight corners.
“We’re going over every situation that’s going to help Sunday,” Hixon said.
For someone with only six punt and three kickoff returns to his name as an NFL player, even this work has its benefits.
“Every rep the guy gets is experience for him,” O’Brien said. “He works here on different situations so when they come up in the game, he doesn’t panic. He can control the ball.”
Ball control hasn’t been the issue for Hixon so far this season. Game-time opportunities have, as chances to return kickoffs have been scarce for the Broncos, whose total of three kickoff runbacks in the season’s first two weeks ranks 31st in the league. (Coincidentally, Sunday’s opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are in 32nd.)
In fact, of the 28 teams that have been in existence since 1976, none have returned fewer kickoffs since then than the Broncos, in part due to the altitude at which the team plays its home games. (It would also be due to the team’s general success in that time; the fewer points you allow, the fewer kickoffs you yield.) The Broncos have run back 1,638 kickoffs since 1976, which is 72 fewer than the next team up the list, the Miami Dolphins. For comparison’s sake, the team with the most kickoff returns since 1976 is the New Orleans Saints, who have returned 435 more kickoffs than the Broncos — an average of 0.87 more returns per game.
“When you don’t get any opportunities,” O’Brien said, “you can’t take advantage.”
Punt returns have been somewhat more plentiful, but the yardage has not, as the Broncos’ 3.0-yard average on six returns places sixth from the bottom in the league table, at the 27th position.
Hixon had an opportunity to break a big return early against the Oakland Raiders after making a tackler miss, but ran squarely into another after spinning out of the first potential stop.
“The first return for the Raiders game, that was on me,” Hixon said. “I made the first guy miss, but I read it wrong. We’ve been working on it.”
Eluding the first tackler, though, is nothing extraordinary in O’Brien’s mind.
“That’s a pre-requisite,” he said. “You’ve got to make the first guy miss. That’s what the good ones do.”
Hixon can be a good returner, O’Brien says, but it’s too early to judge his potential success based on just two games of work.
“Physically he’s got all the ability to make big plays, the explosive plays, but there’s a lot of players in the National Football League that have that physical ability,” said O’Brien, whose past special-teams résumé includes four seasons with Carolina’s Pro Bowl returner and wide receiver, Steve Smith. “So time will tell on this one.”
For now, all Hixon can do is work diligently on the practice field, wait for his chances and show evidence of growth that O’Brien hopes — and expects — to see.
“Obviously it’s a learning experience,” Hixon said.
But it’s one in his learning must also yield ongoing results. If the Broncos’ run of taut games continues, the returns will have to provide a turbo boost; otherwise, the slim gap between defeat and victory could leave the Broncos skidding instead of sailing.