Kicking game is key

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

Craig Dickenson witnessed plenty of high-octane kick returners as an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers.

Yet he says the speed merchant NFLers don't compare with the CFL's explosive talents, including Ottawa sophomore Jason Armstead out of Mississippi, who are scaring special teams co-ordinators across the league.

"Armstead is one of the best we're going to see," said the Stampeders special teams co-ordinator, an assistant with the Chargers for two seasons.

"I really feel the returners in the CFL are better than in the NFL. If you look at them as just pure returners, it's not even a question."

Armstead was runner-up to Winnipeg's Keith Stokes last season as CFL special teams player of the year. He is second in the CFL among kickoff returners with a 19.3 yard average, behind only Montreal's explosive Ezra Landry who scored twice last week against Edmonton.

Armstead is fifth in punt-return yardage, including an 87-yard touchdown sprint, placing an added emphasis on the Stampeders directional punting when Calgary faces Ottawa tomorrow night.

Rookie punter Burke Dales has the second-worst average in the CFL at just 36.2 yards per boot but Dickenson is focusing on having Burke kick the ball away from dangerous returners. Although the Stamps weren't hurt last week by special teams, Dales struggled to keep the ball out of Stokes' hands.

"Our coverage units have to have a big day again," said Dickenson, whose punt coverage unit has allowed an average of just 8.6 yards per return.

"We need to do a better job of directional kicking this week, even though it was tough with the wind in Winnipeg. If we could get a calm day, we'll see a better day with directional kicking."

Dales will be concentrating on keeping the ball out of Armstead's hands while providing his cover unit with time to minimize returns.

"Armstead is dangerous -- so quick and he likes to take the ball to the field," Dales said. "What I'll be working on is getting the ball out of bounds directionally and getting hang time. Hang time is crucial because if I can get it up there for 4.2 or 4.3 seconds, in the air, that gives our guys time to get down there, circle him and try to angle him out.

"I'm so confident in our coverages teams.

While punting is a concern, the placekicking of rookie Sandro DeAngelis has Dickenson sleeping soundly despite off-season concerns it would be a trouble area.

The Nebraska product boasts the only unblemished field-goal record in the league so far, splitting the uprights on all seven tries after going 6-for-6 in pre-season. Last week in Winnipeg, DeAngelis even pounded a lengthy kick through the uprights despite a ridiculously strong prairie wind, the truest test for a CFL placekicker.

"I'm still a pup and I'm still learning and I realize there's going to be growing pains," said DeAngelis, 24. "It was a great night for me and I'm pleased with the start I'm off to.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't check out the stats but the only stat I worry about is to go one-for-one. If you just think about that kick in the present, go one-for-one, do your best and have fun."

DeAngelis said being benched at Nebraska after a disappointing stretch has helped put his role in perspective while keeping his valuable feet planted firmly on the ground despite his phenomenal early season success.

"That nonsense at Nebraska helped me in that I realized this game is not life and death and if you want to be successful it's 99 percent mental," DeAngelis said.

"You're going to have bad days, that's one thing for sure. No two days will be the same."

It's that mental approach that makes DeAngelis, like most pro football kickers, an amateur psychologist in his role on the club.

"You learn from experience. When you first start kicking, you think it's all physical but you start to learn when you make mistakes, that 'wait a second, there's something more to this,' " DeAngelis said.

"At this level, everybody knows how to kick a ball very well but guys who can do it more consistently do it because of their mind and mental toughness or how well they focus at any particular moment."


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