Matt Daniels Is Changing Special Teams In Minnesota One Nickname At A Time

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In late August, Minnesota Vikings longsnapper Andrew DePaola saw special teams coach Matt Daniels downloading the latest episode of House of the Dragon on a preseason flight. “Oh, are you into it?” he asked. “Oh yeah, I’m into it!” Daniels responded.

DePaola had watched Game of Thrones but hadn’t seen House of the Dragon yet. He likes Thrones, but he’s not like he’s a superfan by any means. However, Daniels must have remembered the interaction because he knighted him as “Sir Po” last week.

“We always do these Captains of the Week,” explains Daniels. “Because Po was kind of really the oldest guy in the group, we kinda, like, knighted him pretty much and named him Sir Po.

“So, we kinda did this Game of Thrones theme last week, so it kind of started off as ‘House of Po.’ You know, kind of like the Houses?

“It kinda started off as House of Po, and then it turned into Sir Po. So he’s Sir Po now.”

Sir Po is only one of many nicknames Daniels has for his players. Kicker Greg Joseph is “G-Money,” and rookie punter Ryan Wright is “Mr. Wright.” He calls Josh Metellus “4-4 Bulldog” and Dan Chisena “Hot Sauce.” Electric rookie receiver Jalen Nailor? “Speedy,” naturally.

“We don’t know where he comes up with the time,” says DePaola, laughing. “We have 24 hours in a day, right? We think he has like 38. Because everything he does, we’re like, ‘Hat, where did you come up with the time for all of this?’”

“I have no idea how he gets it all done,” echoes Joseph incredulously.

“Hat” is Daniels’ nickname. His teammates at Duke gave the hard-hitting safety that nickname after he laid out their star running back in practice as a freshman. His players reflexively refer to him as “Hat” or “Coach Hat.”

Early on, Daniels showed them a highlight reel of his time in the NFL. An undrafted free agent in 2012, he played six games with the St. Louis Rams and one with the San Diego Chargers before retiring. His playing days may be well behind him, but Daniels brings the same energy to coaching.

“I mean, his personality, the players feed off that, 100%,” DePaola says. “You know what I mean? He’s just been so positive every single time. Good kick, bad kick; good play, bad play — which we haven’t had many bad plays yet.

“But the guys just feed off of it. He’s just a guy, ‘Hey, you didn’t get ’em this time, next time we’re gonna get ’em. I got this play drawn up for them.’ Or, ‘Hey, we did great on this play. That’s who you are. Keep putting that on film. Keep being you.’”

It’s not just nicknames. Daniels had a plaque made up extolling the virtues of special teams that he put in each of his players’ lockers. He ordered hats with “ST” on them and wears them proudly. And he’ll go the extra mile with his themes.

“He’ll do graphics, so it’ll just be a photoshopped theme,” says DePaola. “Mine was like Game of Thrones, like John Snow, like standing there with the sword on the knee just looking out. My face was on that, though.”

Daniels was playing into DePaola’s status as the special teams veteran. DePaola, 35, is two years older than Daniels, and they coordinate on leading special teams. One of Daniels’ strengths is that he convinces his players that they are not who they are at their worst moment. One shanked punt doesn’t make Wright a bad punter; Joseph’s miss in Arizona last year doesn’t define him.

“Coach Hat and BK (assistant Ben Kotwica) do an awesome job of making guys [feel good about themselves]. It excites them,” says Joseph. “[It] gets guys woken up in the morning. It’s all competition-based, and there’s obviously a bunch of competitive guys here. So it kinda livens it up a little bit.

“Guys appreciate it, and you can tell guys enjoy it a lot.”

DePaola will often talk to younger players about their interests to take their minds off of their mistakes. He’ll also ask them about specific assignments in certain situations, trying to bring them back to when they had success in practice. Daniels uses many of the same techniques.

“If it’s a bad kick or a bad play or something else, I’ll just, I don’t know, strike up a conversation about something,” says DePaola, “or just talk about, like, ‘Hey, when this guy is lined up in this alignment, do you know?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’

“Hopefully, they can kinda think about that and maybe take their brain there and coach me on what they’re doing, even though I know their assignment or what they have to do,” he continues. “Just to help them kinda take their mind off of what just happened, and be like, ‘Okay, hey, but then in practice, you were killing your man. So, I can’t wait for you to kill it out here on the field.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Watch this, watch this!’”

Daniels also intuitively knows when to give players their space. For example, Joseph may want time to himself after a missed kick. Too much positivity at the wrong time can be counterproductive, and he gets that.

“He’s a professional,” says Joseph. “He understands. I think he has a good gauge of when to talk to someone, when maybe not to talk to someone. And most of the time, we stay in our lane, and we understand that we help the team the most by doing our jobs to the best of our ability.”

Ultimately, his positivity works because it’s genuine. Kevin O’Connell is California cool. Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips is the wry offensive mastermind up in the booth, and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is the group’s elder statesman. But Daniels is the engine. The source of energy that galvanizes everyone in the building.

“[His] positivity has oozed into the team and the players,” says DePaola.

“And funny enough, not just the special teams guys, but even the guys on OD [all hands on deck], who will come in and sit in for a hands team or an onside [kick]. Those guys who aren’t on all the core four, but they’re on those, they’ll come in and be like, ‘Okay, yeah, like damn, this guy’s got some energy to him. He’s got some personality.’

“And the line guys. I mean, it’s just, I think anybody that sits in on one of his meetings can easily be motivated to get out there and be like, ‘Yeah, I want to run through a brick wall for that guy.’”

Daniels has a tall task ahead of him. Vikings fans are haunted by memories of Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh missing critical kicks, and there was a rotating door of kickers and punters in the Mike Zimmer era. Unfortunately, most special teams players are only noticed when they do something wrong. But that’s why Daniels is trying to keep things positive. No player is defined by their worst moment. They all wear the same hat.

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