Bubba Ventrone -- "Don't call me Ray" -- looks forward to coaching the team he served as special teams captain more than 10 years ago. (Cleveland Browns)
Bubba Ventrone is ecstatic to be back with the Browns
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Takeaways from Bubba Ventrone introduction as Browns special teams coordinator …
First reference, he prefers Bubba. His father gave him the nickname.
“I am not into the Ray mode anymore. Nobody really calls me Ray. Everyone calls me Bubba,” Raymond “Bubba” Ventrone said.
Everyone but his mother.
“My mom calls me Raymond.”
Ventrone, 40, absolutely beamed with pride and joy about returning to the Browns as a coach. He was a core special teamer for coach Eric Mangini in 2009-10 and continued as special teams captain through 2012 for Pat Shurmur.
“It is a blue-collar town that loves football and that is passionate about football,” said Ventrone, who saw a contrast in Indianapolis as special teams coordinator the past five seasons for the Colts. “I was here from ‘09-’12, and we didn’t have a lot of successful seasons. We were very good on special teams back then, may I note. Even back then, we didn’t win a lot of football games, but you could just tell that this town just loves football.
“For me to be back around that … I am from Pittsburgh. I can’t wait to play them twice a year. I loved playing against them as a player. I can’t wait to coach against that team. I am just so excited to be back in a football town that wants to win.”
Ventrone is a unique branch of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. Belichick gave him his NFL start as a player and as a coach.
Belichick signed Ventrone with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent from Villanova – where he played against Browns coach Kevin Stefanski of Penn – in 2005. Ten years later, Belichick hired Ventrone as assistant special teams coach.
“I credit Bill a huge amount to everything that I have had and the success that I have had,” Ventrone said. “He actually texted me this morning to congratulate me on the job. Bill really has given me my foundation for learning the kicking game.”
Ventrone played under one of the league’s all-time best special teams coaches, Brad Seely, with the Patriots, Browns and then 49ers.
“[Belichick] and Brad Seely both have a huge influence in the things I do, how I coach the game, how I call the game and how I see the game,” he said. “They just have given me a lot of insight, direction and opportunity. Bill gave me opportunities as a player and coach, as did Brad. I am going to use everything I learned from them and hopefully make this group one that we can be proud of.”
Despite his loyalty to Belichick – or maybe because of it – Ventrone said his most vivid memory as a Browns player was beating Belichick’s powerhouse Patriots, 34-14, in 2010. It was Mangini’s finest moment as Browns coach.
“We beat them up pretty good. I know that is obviously a really hard team to play against every season so it was a big win in that game. I remember I recovered a fumble off a muffed kick in that game,” he said.
Been there, done that
Seely’s emphasis on technique and fundamentals has been Ventrone’s calling-card as a coach.
“I think I have a good feel on the techniques that are played within the scheme and what is realistic and what is not,” he said. “I think the players respect that.
“I have actually done it in my career. That is all I did really. I feel like I have maybe a little bit more insight into the true intricacies of the techniques. I am big, big, big – we will drill it to death – on the fundamentals of the game. Footwork, hat placement and playing with the base. I am going to emphasize that ad nauseam to our players, and ultimately, that is going to get us the best results. You can’t do anything unless you have good fundamentals and technique. That starts from Day 1.”
Ventrone’s special teams in Indianapolis ranked in the top 10 in four of his five seasons as coordinator. They were eighth in 2022, including a first-place ranking in kick return average (27.8 yards).
“This past year, we had a young group in Indianapolis. We drilled the crap out of their footwork on kickoff return in our drops. We ended up leading the league in kickoff return because we executed our techniques well, and we ran basic returns the entire season,” he said.
Ventrone played with Browns special teams legends Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson and saw first-hand how special teams could impact games, especially when Browns offensive and defensive teams were so lacking.
“Just being able to impact the game is what we want to do,” he said. “First, we are going to emphasize fundamentals and technique, and then those big plays will come. We are not going to reach for them.”
Cupboard not bare
Ventrone will have some influence on identifying core special teams players in the coming transaction season.
He considers player evaluation one of his strong suits. In Indianapolis, he developed two undrafted players into All-Pro special teamers -- George Odum of Central Arkansas, who led the NFL in special teams tackles in 2020, and Ashton Dulin of Malone College, who was second in tackles in 2021.
Ventrone said he already has had discussions with GM Andrew Berry about contributing to player evaluations.
“I am excited about bringing what I feel like is a good eye for the football game here,” he said.
He inherits some decent specialists – kicker Cade York, punter Corey Bojorquez, and returners Jerome Ford, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Jakeem Grant and Jaelen Darden. Grant’s first season with the Browns was wrecked by a ruptured Achilles tendon in training camp.
York set a Browns rookie record with 107 points despite going only 10 of 16 in field goals in FirstEnergy Stadium and having three kicks blocked overall (two on the road).
“The kicking position, I feel like the best guys, the guys that have the most successful and the best kickers – I have been around quite a bit -- Phil Dawson, [Adam] Vinatieri, [Stephen] Gostkowski – and the guys who I have coached in Indianapolis – [former Brown] Chase [McLaughlin] this past year-had a good year and [Lions kicker Michael] Badgley – those guys have done a good job of putting misses to bed and moving on and not being so caught up in missing a kick. It is how fast you can make the correction and then move on to the next kick. I have not had a chance to sit down and actually meet with Cade, but that will be one of the things that I am going to influence for him.”
Asked whether he can make an impact on special teams units that were inconsistent at best and destructive at worst in 2022, Ventrone said, “My message to the team is going to be, ‘Look, if we are going to be a good unit top to bottom, we need contributions from everybody. Whether you are on the field goal block unit, the field goal unit or you are a starter that plays in one or two phases, everybody has to be willing to do their part.
“If everybody is willing to do their part and no one is going to balk at being on the field for a kicking play, then I think you have an opportunity. You need the buy-in. That is what I am hoping that I can get out of everybody. I feel like I am pretty demanding of what I want. I am going to coach everybody the same. I will coach hard.
"I am going to coach the crap out of techniques and fundamentals, and ultimately, that is going to give us the results we want on the field.”