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Ficken Changing Culture of Bolts Special Teams Unit


Truth be told, Ryan Ficken wasn't even worried about himself as he prepared to transition from the only NFL organization he'd ever known.

The Chargers hired Ficken in February, less than a month after he had just completed his 15th season with the Vikings.

Ficken had held a handful of roles in Minnesota, serving as the assistant running backs coach, assistant wide receivers coach and assistant special teams coach before spending the 2021 season as the special teams coordinator.

Now, Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley wanted him to come lead the Bolts special teams group.

Ficken was excited for the chance, but only after consulting with his family. Ficken and his wife have three children — two boys and a girl — and he knew the move would affect all of them.

"My family was the most important aspect," Ficken said. "We knew it wasn't going to be an easy transition because Minnesota was home for us.

"But doing our research and talking to Coach Staley and the Spanos family and [Chargers General Manager] Tom Telesco … they made it feel like home and made that transition a lot easier," Ficken continued. "Knowing the culture they're trying to build here, it made it a lot easier for us. And then once we got here, the way they've treated us, it's really helped out a lot.

"Everything we thought it'd be, it's that and more," Ficken added. "Now that we're here, I just want us to win games."

The Ficken family has settled in nicely to Southern California. Ten-year-old Wyatt celebrated his birthday earlier this week, while 6-year-old Gianna and 3-year-old Jonathan have adapted well.

And Ficken is thriving in his new role, helping elevate a unit that has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs over the years.

Staley said Ficken has "really just transformed our special teams culture."

He added: "I think making everybody on our team, including coaches, just included in that, building that team culture in that everyone has a role that is important."

On the field, the Bolts special teams group has had a hand in helping the team get to 5-3 at the midway point of the season.

The Chargers punt coverage team is tops in the league, allowing just 3.0 yards per punt return (36 yards on a dozen returns).

That unit put the Bolts in position to win in Week 6 on Monday Night Football when Ja'Sir Taylor forced a muffed punt that Deane Leonard recovered. Four plays later, Dustin Hopkins sealed the win with a walk-off field goal.

The Chargers also rank in the top-10 in punt return yardage, and both kickoff units have been solid.

JK Scott has also revitalized his career under Ficken. The Bolts punter knew of Ficken from afar when they both resided in the NFC North, but jumped at the chance to work with him this spring as a free agent.

"Any opportunity I got was going to be a blessing for me," said Scott, who doesn't have a touchback this season. "But when I heard the Chargers were interested and reached out to my agent, Coach Ficken was the first one to call me.

"He told he'd been following me and that he wanted to bring me in," Scott said. "That was awesome to feel that welcome."

And then there's the kicking situation, where the Bolts will once again use their third kicker of the season Sunday in San Francisco.

Hopkins is dealing with a hamstring injury he suffered in Week 6, when he kicked four field goals on the way to AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Hopkins had missed the previous game with a quad injury, which meant Taylor Bertolet made his NFL debut in Week 5. All he did was make all three field goals in his NFL debut, critical points in a 30-28 win over the Browns.


But Bertolet was injured last week in practice, which meant Cameron Dicker was the latest man up at that spot. Dicker was unfazed in his Bolts debut in Atlanta, nailing a walk-off winner from 37 yards out at the buzzer in a 20-17 win.

Dicker then earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, making the Chargers — yes, the Chargers — the first team in NFL history to have two different kickers win that award.

Ficken chuckled when asked about the turnover at that spot this season.

"That's probably a record [number of kickers] for a lot of coaches," Ficken said with a laugh. "But we've been very fortunate that these three guys are all great character guys.

"We were lucky they were available, and each of them have handled it with such poise," Ficken added.

Ficken has adjusted on the fly in his first season with the Bolts, something he learned quickly while with the Vikings.

He spent eight seasons as Minnesota's assistant special teams coordinator, giving him plenty of time to craft his own approach when he got the lead role one day.

"It's more about being able to evolve because you have different players. But now people have [film] on us, what we do, tendencies," Ficken said. "Now I'm able to anticipate things a little bit more, look at things with a critical eye.

"[In Minnesota], I tried to put myself in situations where I was like, 'Alright, what would I do in this situation?' It kind of helped me get here," Ficken added.

One area where Ficken and assistant special teams coordinator Chris Gould have excelled, according to Staley, is getting contributions from the latter portion of the roster.

"What you have to do as special teams coordinators now in the NFL is you have to develop young players," Staley said. "That's such an integral part of your team is taking these young players who have maybe not played special teams very much in college and getting them up to speed, fundamentally, in understanding the pro game.

"I think that they are both excellent teachers. They set great examples," Staley added.

Chargers fullback Zander Horvath is one of the handful of young players Ficken has helped bring along this season.

Horvath plays on multiple phases of special teams, and said this week that he feels confident and prepared going into each game under Ficken's leadership.

"It's different with every guy, but he relates to you. You can go up to his office anytime and even if he's doing something, he'll stop and help with whatever you need," Horvath said. "That's great to be able to have. Just a good guy overall with great morale.

"He breaks everything down. He'll go over every play we're installing, and every position, too," Horvath later added. "If you have questions, he'll stop the meeting and make sure you understand it before we get on the field so you're not messing it up there. We make sure it's all set in stone in the meeting."

Scott echoed Horvath's sentiments.

"He's impacted us in a really positive way," Scott said. "He's done a really good job of setting the tone and creating culture. He's really good at bringing out the best in each guy.

"From a specialist standpoint, he's great at seeing what our strengths are and then using them for the advantage of the team," Scott added. "He's done a great job, man. It's been such a fun season so far."

Check out the best photos of the Bolts Wednesday practice at Hoag Performance Center

Ficken credited Gould for helping him cultivate talent and contributions up and down the roster.

"It depends what their learning curve is, and if they've played a lot of teams or not," Ficken said of his teaching approach. "But it's a testament to the players because they want to be great, which allows us to pile on more.

"But [Gould] does a great job of getting those guys ready for certain situations. Him and I are a team," Ficken added. "It's just a matter of being open with players, being transparent and firm. Let them know what your expectations are and keep them accountable to it."

At 5-3, the Bolts find themselves in the thick of the AFC playoff picture with 10 games left.

And while who knows what the home stretch will bring, Ficken's leadership and impact has delivered a calm presence to a unit that has been erratic at times in recent seasons.

Staley said: "We're halfway through the season, almost, but as you guys have seen, it's a much different looking movie out there."

Ficken is appreciative of his time in Minnesota, and noted he wouldn't be as prepared as he is if not for the 15 seasons he spent in purple.

But he took on a new challenge with excitement and enthusiasm, even if it meant moving his family halfway across the country.

"I wanted to make sure we created an environment where we're very transparent and honest. But the biggest thing I wanted to do was create leadership on special teams," Ficken said. "This is about them, not me or anyone else. It's about the team and the players. I wanted them to have a say in it.

"We have helped our team with a goal of winning games," Ficken added. "There's a lot of plays in a game, but we just have a hand in it. This is the greatest team game there is, but we can contribute in the right direction."

So far, the Chargers special teams has done exactly that.

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