ST. LOUIS — All the oohs and ahs emanating from the early training camp workouts at Rams Park haven’t been reserved for the playmaking of the flashy new receivers and the occasional big hits from the defense.
The punter has wowed the record crowds, too. That’s right. The punter. Given a chance to punt in front of last Saturday’s record crowd, Johnny Hekker was launching footballs seemingly from one end zone to another and with enough hang time to give fans plenty of time to show how impressed they were. The second-year pro clearly has the leg to become a star — a punting star, anyway.
After his offseason, in fact, Hekker has a leg up on the road to stardom. Thanks to a suggestion by the Rams’ front office, Hekker became a YouTube sensation as the star of a trick-kick video produced by Dude Perfect, a small group of young men who have gained nearly 1.4 million subscribers.
In just more than a month since Dude Perfect’s “NFL Kicking Edition” hit YouTube, it has been viewed more than 1.8 million times. Interest hardly is waning, either. Between Thursday and Friday afternoon, the video was viewed more than 30,000 times.
Watch it and you will understand why it’s so popular. Hekker pulls off three kicks that are nothing short of incredible: a 40-yard punt that banks off a backboard and drops through a hoop, a 75-yard punt from the roof at Rams Park into a kiddie swimming pool on a practice field and a backward kick of about 10 yards that goes through the hoop.
“That one took me the longest,” Hekker said Thursday after Rams practice. “That one took a long, long time.”
Hekker estimated he needed about 30 minutes to convert each of the other trick kicks. The seven-minute video, which also includes tricks by kicker Greg Zuerlein and long snapper Jake McQuade, was produced from about four hours of footage shot in two afternoons.
“It’s all legit,” Hekker said. “No CGI (computer-generated imagery). We buried the shots.”
Hekker says he has watched the video only “two or three” times but has enjoyed basking in the spotlight he helped create for football’s often-neglected specialists.
“When I was training with a bunch of kickers and punters in the offseason, they would tell me how awesome the video is and how nice it was that special teams finally got some publicity,” Hekker said. “It was fun to do that for kickers and punters around the country. We’re important. We can do fun stuff, too.”
If the Rams’ offense lives up to expectations, Hekker’s punting might not be so important in his second season. His rookie season went well after he made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State. Hekker finished 16th in the league with a net average of 39.9 yards. Doubling as the team’s holder, the former high school quarterback also completed all three of his pass attempts, one for a touchdown.
But he also shanked his share of punts and cost the Rams a victory against the 49ers when, as the holder, he took too long to call for the snap and the resulting delay-of-game penalty wiped out what would have been a 53-yard winning field goal.
He enters this season in a much more secure place. With his job all but assured for 2013, Hekker was able to give his leg a month off from punting after last season.
“I needed the rest,” he said. “Getting ready (for the NFL) after my college season, I trained the entire time. I had punted for a year straight.”
His offseason focus was reducing the shanks and improving his directional kicking, particularly to the left, an important consideration for a team that values location more than distance. Hekker, 23, believes he has added distance as well.
“I’ve made some gains in overall strength and flexibility. Compared to last year, I’m hitting the ball considerably farther,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about that.”
So are the fans, judging from their reaction at Rams Park.
Note: The Rams will hold an open scrimmage at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. There is no admission charge and players will sign autographs after the workout. Gates will open at 11:30.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.