Rams punter Johnny Hekker someone to fear (don't laugh) in Super Bowl

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- More than six years ago, the high school football coach of punter Johnny Hekker gave Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel a heads-up.

"He can compete at the quarterback spot, too," Tom Bainter, who coached Hekker at Bothell High School, just north of Seattle, recalled telling Fassel when he made a trip to see Hekker and the Rams in St. Louis. "We were all joking. But a part of me was more serious."

Fassel already had an inkling about Hekker's multifaceted skill set when the Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent from Oregon State in 2012. "That was a huge bonus knowing that he's a big, strong, long athlete," Fassel said. "As well as his punting."

As a quarterback, Hekker led Bothell High to a state championship appearance in his senior season. That was the last time Hekker completed a pass on a championship stage.

Until last Sunday.

The Los Angeles Rams trailed the New Orleans Saints 13-0 and needed a spark. The offense stalled in Rams territory and Hekker trotted onto the field with the special-teams unit, presumably to punt. But instead of booting the ball away, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Hekker completed a 12-yard pass to defensive back Sam Shields for a first down.

"We felt like if the look presented itself, we were going to take it," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "Sam Shields did a good job running an excellent route. Johnny delivered a ball right on the money."

After Hekker's completion, the momentum shifted. The Rams took the fourth-down conversion and eventually turned it into a field goal to trim the deficit to 13-3, then eventually pulled off a come-from-behind overtime victory inside a raucous Superdome to clinch the NFC.

"It was a great deal," Hekker said.

Though film and recency will make it more difficult, it wouldn't be shocking if Hekker's trick-play mastery is called upon when the Rams play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Feb. 3.

"He can make big-time plays," McVay said of Hekker, who has 20 pass attempts since 2012, including playoffs, the most of any non-quarterback during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. "He can do a variety of different things with that athleticism, not exclusive to throwing it, but also being able to run."

When the Rams returned to L.A. from St. Louis in 2016, Hekker was among the most recognizable players on the roster, not just because of his tall stature, red hair and goatee, but because he was constantly on the field as he boomed punts for a team that was inept at moving the ball on offense. That season, Hekker punted 98 times for an average of 47.8 yards and was selected to his third Pro Bowl.

But since McVay took over as coach in 2017, Hekker often has been relegated to the sideline, or to holding for kicker Greg Zuerlein, as the offense rarely stalls outside of field goal territory. Hekker punted only 43 times during the regular season. Yet the sixth-year pro, who signed a two-year extension through 2022 worth nearly $10 million, has continued to prove himself instrumental when his punting prowess is needed, and also when the offense sometimes needs a boost.

"We are an aggressive team by nature. I think that's our mindset, that's our mentality, but you don't want to be reckless," McVay said, when asked about the timing of trick plays. "We feel real confident in our players' ability to execute and we're going to play not fearing failure."

In Week 8, the Green Bay Packers led the Rams 10-0 in the second quarter when Hekker came on in punt formation. But instead of punting, Hekker completed a 12-yard pass to Shields. The drive eventually stalled, but the Rams came from behind to defeat the Packers 29-27.

And the ensuing week, with the Rams and Saints tied at 14, McVay elected for a fake field goal attempt in an eventual 45-35 loss. With Hekker on to hold, he took the snap, then sprang to his feet and sprinted toward the first-down marker. Officials ruled him short.

"Every player, every true competitor's desire is to be able to help a team out in any capacity that they can," said Hekker, who also kicked a field goal in Week 3 when Zuerlein was unexpectedly sidelined during pregame warm-ups. "To have Coach McVay, Coach Fassel, guys that are creative and like to find mismatches all over the field, not just on offense and defense, but let special teams be that attacking factor as well ... we just take pride in it and practice our butts off."

The installation of trick plays happens during the practice week, said Fassel, whom McVay retained from former coach Jeff Fisher's staff. So does a discussion with McVay about whether they'll use it. "We talk about all those things going into the game because in the game you literally have three seconds to make a decision," Fassel said. "If you find yourself in the right situation during the game, it's, 'What do you think?' And it's, 'OK, here we go.'"

Fassel is under no false impressions about how difficult it will be to execute a trick play against the Patriots.

What Bainter, the high school coach, and Fassel knew years ago, is now readily available on the scouting report.

"I think everybody is aware," Fassel said, "Johnny can throw."