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Saints rookie Nolan Cooney overcame cancer, then learned to punt with help from YouTube

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METAIRIE, La. — It was Nolan Cooney‘s passion for sports that motivated him most when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs during his junior year of high school.

The New Orleans Saints‘ rookie punter was a three-sport standout at East Greenwich High in Rhode Island. He said he wasn’t scared when he got the diagnosis and trusted his doctors, but the only information he researched was stories of athletes like cyclist Lance Armstrong and third baseman Mike Lowell, both of whom successfully underwent treatment for testicular cancer. Cooney was thrilled when he got the chance to speak with Armstrong on the phone, and when New England Patriots cancer survivor Joe Andruzzi came to visit and let him wear his Super Bowl rings.

And sure enough, Cooney reached his goal of returning to the basketball court in time for the playoffs — just days after he finished his two months of chemotherapy treatments. The scene was triumphant, with the crowd chanting his name in the stands.

“We didn’t have to lift his spirits,” Cooney’s parents, Joseph and Janice, agreed while discussing the positive outlook their son has maintained. “Our spirits were lifted by him.”

But nobody in the family ever dreamed that Cooney might become a NFL punter seven years later, signing with the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse.

Because, well, Cooney had never punted before.

The three sports he played at the time were basketball, baseball and soccer.

“People say everything happens for a reason,” said Cooney, whose dad suggested he visit a local punting and kicking camp during those months of draining chemo treatments.

“Who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t really stumbled upon this during what would seem for a lot of people to be a tougher time [in my life]?” Cooney said. “But maybe it was the greatest thing to ever happen.”

Cooney (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) always had a strong leg from his years as a soccer goalie, and he had a natural spin on his kicks that made him good at punting the ball when he messed around in the yard. But there was a local rule that prevented him from playing both soccer and football in the fall, and he chose soccer.

When Cooney got healthy, he started teaching himself how to punt by watching YouTube videos — as if his story isn’t remarkable enough.

“You can learn a lot from studying film of other punters,” Cooney explained, “and hopefully they’re willing to speak to things that work well for them.”

Cooney attended his first camp in the summer before his senior year of high school, where the instructors told him he showed real promise as a punter (and less as a place-kicker). Then he continued to attend camps, even though he went back to playing soccer in the fall.

Cooney had opportunities to play college baseball as a catcher at smaller schools. But he wanted to pursue punting, so he signed up for a postgraduate year at Bridgton Academy in Maine to actually play on a football team for the first time in 2015.

“He’s a special kid,” said Trevor Coston, a former NFL safety who served as a coach and counselor at Bridgton and became Cooney’s personal assistant when they would shovel snow off the field in the mornings to work on his punting and send tapes out to colleges.

“He’d be up there shoveling the pathway before I’d get there,” Coston said. “It wasn’t like a lot of schools were opening doors. He just kept knocking. And a person like him, if you know him, his story, his background, betting on himself with everything he’s gone through, it was pretty easy that he was gonna make it once he had the chance to show anyone what he was gonna do.”

Cooney was especially persistent with Syracuse, which was the only FBS school that wound up offering him a walk-on opportunity.

Not only was Syracuse his mom’s alma mater, but Cooney had also met former Syracuse and current New York Giants punter Riley Dixon at a camp. And he credited Dixon with passing on his information to some of the coaches and administrators. They sent him an email inviting him to walk on about three weeks before practices started in 2016.

“He basically was like an unrecruited walk-on that kind of just showed up at our door,” said former Syracuse special-teams coach Justin Lustig, who is now at Vanderbilt. “This kid’s unbelievable. One of my favorites I’ve ever coached. [His makeup] is just through the roof, man. Like every category. I haven’t been around a guy that works harder than Nolan.”

Lustig said Cooney started out fourth on the depth chart as a redshirt freshman and gradually worked his way up behind current Atlanta Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter, while also serving as a holder. When Hofrichter got drafted in 2020, Syracuse offered Cooney a scholarship for his senior year. And he became a third-team All-ACC punter, averaging a school-record 44.8 yards per kick.

Cooney led all FBS punters in total punts (74) and yards (3,314), with 24 downed inside the 20 and only three touchbacks.

He also started a podcast last year featuring a variety of guests who talk about overcoming obstacles. The name of the podcast, fittingly for a punter and cancer survivor, is “Power Through.”

In New Orleans, Cooney will compete with Blake Gillikin, last year’s undrafted rookie, to replace longtime standout Thomas Morstead, who was released in a wave of salary-cap cuts this offseason.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Janice said of her son’s unlikely path to the NFL. “If only they let him play soccer and football, we might have known this a little earlier.”

Meanwhile, the rule that prevented players in East Greenwich from participating in both sports has since been changed. Joseph said some school officials referred to the switch as “the Nolan Cooney rule.”



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Ever the enigma, Chargers’ Joey Bosa adjusting to new defense – Los Angeles Chargers Blog

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — Just when you thought Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, heading into his sixth season, couldn’t do anything to surprise you anymore, he comes up with this: A media day photo with a very small (and terrified) dog in a baby stroller.

“That’s what he came up with?” said running back Austin Ekeler.

No, it’s not his dog. He once said to a colleague, “I can barely take care of myself, much less a dog.”

It is part of the Chargers’ “Doggie Draft,” an initiative to get shelter dogs adopted.

“It suits him,” said someone perusing the photo.

Or, as another colleague mentioned, watching Bosa run around several years ago frantic to find his helmet (it was in his locker): “It’s just Joey being Joey.”

Bosa is a sort of enigma, until he gets on the field. There, he wreaks havoc with anyone in his way, recording 7.5 sacks and 29 solo tackles in 2020 despite myriad injuries.

At Chargers mandatory minicamp this week, he spent a good deal of time stretching with an elastic band, taking his time to work out his muscles. Then he picked up his helmet and sprinted over to his position group to continue to learn the new defense put in by a new staff which will change the scheme to a 3-4 from a 4-3.

“It’s been tough for me the last couple of days,” Bosa said. “But it’s an adjustment. There’s a lot more to this defense than I’ve ever been part of before.”

Which is saying a lot for a three-time Pro Bowler ranked among the top defensive ends in the league. It’s especially telling following a 2020 season, where he estimates he suffered 15 different injuries.

“Luckily a lot of them were just a swollen ankle, my shin and my triceps,” he said. “The concussions — there are no effects that I’ve been dealing with. I’m feeling good, nothing from last year.”

Saying he’d only played in a 3-4 scheme a few times, Bosa admitted he’d have to work on his two-point stance and that he loved “being able to see the whole field” as he did.

That said, it is an adjustment that new head coach Brandon Staley believes Bosa, an Ohio State grad, will catch onto quickly.

“The thing that he does best is rush the passer,” Staley said. “You can see why he is such a premium rusher when you’re around him in person, with his hands, his quickness. His ability to process quickly on the move. … We’re certainly still learning him and he’s learning us. Hopefully through training camp, we can really figure out exactly where that sweet spot is for him.”

Bosa, who has 47.5 career sacks, signed a five-year extension worth $135 million last summer after being the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

Once he figures out the defense, he expects to record a lot more of those sacks.

Soft and unassuming before he takes the field, he becomes — as he says — “an animal” once the whistle blows. It’s something that runs in the family.

His brother Nick, recovering from a torn ACL at the beginning of last season, comes to town with his San Francisco 49ers teammates in August for joint scrimmages against the Chargers.

“I’m sure my mom and dad are over the moon,” Bosa said. “It will be fun.”

Beyond that, Bosa seemed fired up for the season after just two days of mandatory minicamp. Training camp starts July 27.

“We got everything we needed,” he said. “It’s exciting. I don’t want to get too carried away, but it’s exciting.”

Joey being Joey.



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‘It’s straight go-mode:’ No offseason for Ravens’ Lamar Jackson – Baltimore Ravens Blog

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson drove the pass 50 yards in the air and placed it in a tight window along the sideline to Sammy Watkins, who was running stride for stride with Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

This was Jackson’s best pass of the offseason in what became his best practice of the spring. It was a near-perfect way to wrap up the Baltimore Ravens’ minicamp and begin a five-week break before the start of training camp.

Before you start talking about a month-long summer vacation, Jackson has other plans.

“It’s really not the offseason anymore,” Jackson said. “For us, I’ll say, we’ve just got to keep grinding and stay in shape. We can’t go backwards right now, because we already had our fun and did whatever we did during the regular offseason. Not this time; it’s straight go-mode right now. The season is here.”

Overall, it was an uneven offseason for Jackson. In the practices open to the media this spring, he was on-target in the red zone and up-and-down beyond that. Some deep throws wobbled and others were picked off or overthrown.

Jackson knows there’s plenty of work to get done to become a consistent passer. He expects to get together with his receivers in Florida during time leading up to training camp. He didn’t address whether he’ll work with a personal quarterback coach, which is something he’s done in the past.

What’s fueling him heading into this season is how his past years ended. Jackson didn’t win in the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, and he lost in the divisional round in Buffalo five months ago.

“We fell short three years in a row since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “And I’m always seeing teams, when they get [to the Super Bowl], it’s hard work, preparation.”

To get to the top, Jackson and the Ravens need to go over the top more. Jackson said a big focus this offseason is on improving the deep passing game.

Last year, the Ravens had 17 completions on throws of 20 yards or longer. Only four teams — the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans — had fewer.

“People are always saying we throw short, intermediate routes and stuff like that – little 5-yard, 10-yard routes,” Jackson said. “But we had some chances last year. We hit some of them, but we’re just trying to be more consistent this year, and that’s where the strides happen. It starts in practice, and hopefully it transitions to the game. We’ve just got to keep working on it.”

If defenses are going to stack the box to stop the NFL’s top rushing team, Jackson and Baltimore have to figure out a way to make them pay repeatedly. Jackson connected on 37.8% of passes longer than 20 yards (17-of-45) last season, which ranked 24th in the NFL.

“I think we’ll have a lot of favorable looks, and we got to be ready to take advantage of them,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Our goal is to win, and if teams are giving us opportunities to throw the ball deep, it’s upon us to work hard and figure that out and really take advantage of that because those are game-changing plays.”

Jackson believes the key to boosting his consistency on deep throws is more about his feet than his arm.

“That’s a big emphasis for me — just working on my footwork, making sure I stay open so the ball can drive, so I can put a little tight spiral on the ball,” Jackson said.

Heading into training camp, the more pressing question is whether Jackson will get a new deal by the time he returns. Jackson, who is signed through 2022, has been in talks with the team about a contract extension.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Jackson won’t get distracted if the sides are unable to hammer out a long-term deal by the start of the regular season.

“Look what he’s done — he’s going to get paid. He knows that,” Harbaugh said. “The question becomes, what’s he going to do? What’s his legacy going to be as a quarterback? That’s what he’s focused on. That’s what’s so great about it. The other thing is a done deal.”

Jackson, whose $1.771 million salary ranks 400th among all players this year, said his contract is a non-issue.

“I’m not going to lie to you; I’m not really focused on that right now,” Jackson said. “I’m focused on getting better. I’m focused on working with my teammates right now. I’m focused on winning right now. I’m trying to bring a Super Bowl here.”

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Backup San Francisco 49ers DE Jordan Willis suspended six games for PED policy violation

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers defensive end Jordan Willis has been suspended for the first six games of the 2021 season for violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

According to a statement from an NFL spokesperson, Willis will be able to participate in all offseason and preseason practices as well as the 49ers’ three exhibition games. Willis is eligible to return to the 49ers active roster on Monday, Oct. 25, after the team’s Week 7 game against the Indianapolis Colts.

The suspension comes after Willis re-signed with the 49ers on March 25. That deal was for one year with a base salary of $990,000. San Francisco initially acquired Willis in a trade with the New York Jets on Oct. 27 of last year, sending a sixth-round choice to New York in exchange for Willis and a seventh-round pick.

Willis appeared in seven games for the 49ers, posting 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Heading into training camp, he is expected to compete for a spot on the 49ers’ depth chart as an edge rusher.

That group also includes Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, Dee Ford, Arden Key and Alex Barrett. With Willis slated to miss six games and Bosa (ACL) and Ford (back) working back from injury, the 49ers are a little light on depth at the position, which could mean another addition will be needed as the season nears.

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