As JoJo Natson jogged off the field Sunday, he turned his head to the stands and offered a salute with his left hand. He had no idea he would be back in the Coliseum — especially not so soon.
The Rams had released Natson after the preseason, but with Pro Bowl kick returner Pharoh Cooper and his backup, Mike Thomas, sidelined because of injuries suffered in the season opener, Natson had a chance to fill the void against the Arizona Cardinals.
As it turned out, Natson got many chances, returning six punts and one kickoff for 155 yards, including a 60-yard punt return that set up a touchdown.
“I’m just thankful I was able to go out and show my teammates what I’m capable of,” Natson said.
And he wasn’t alone. Punter Johnny Hekker also replaced a missing special-teams standout in the Rams’ 34-0 victory.
After Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein suffered a groin injury during warm-ups, Hekker stepped in to kick a field goal and an extra point, and also handled kickoffs.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) throws a pass while being chased by Arizona Cardinals defensive back Budda Baker (36) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks (12) heads upfield trying to avoid the tackle of Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tre Boston (33) in the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams wide receiver Robert Woods (17) catches a pass defended by quarterback Jared Goff (16) defended by Arizona Cardinals defensive back Budda Baker (36) in the second half.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams kick returner JoJo Natson celebrates a return against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams fans during a game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) scores a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams punter Johnny Hekker (6) celebrates after kicking a field goal against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
“Every time I look back at Greg on a field goal or watch him approach a kickoff, he’s just got a peace about him,” Hekker said. “And I think, I went out there, and I definitely had to catch myself and take a couple of deep breaths, but I just tried to emulate his calm and definitely his production.”
Hekker was warming up when he learned of Zuerlein’s injury. Zuerlein had back surgery at the end of 2017, missing the Rams’ final two regular-season games and the wild-card playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
But he appeared healthy during preseason, so the Rams released backup kicker Sam Ficken, who had been re-signed as an insurance policy. Zuerlein made all but two of his 40 field-goal tries last season, and drilled four against the Oakland Raiders on Monday, earning NFC special-teams player-of-the-week honors.
Hekker occasionally goofed around with Zuerlein in practice doing place kicks, but hadn’t kicked a field goal in a game since 2007, when he was still in high school. Receiver Cooper Kupp replaced Hekker as the holder.
“I can’t imagine him thinking you’re going to punt the whole game and then, ‘All right, Johnny, you’re going to kick field goals, too,’ ” quarterback Jared Goff said. “And then you get Cooper. Cooper was holding and he doesn’t do that really ever.
“So for those two guys to go out there and make a field goal was pretty impressive. But that’s just kind of the way our team’s been built. It’s just respond to that type of adversity, and I don’t think anyone flinched.”
The Rams spared Hekker from all but one extra-point attempt by successfully completing three two-point conversions. Still, Hekker had to endure a dizzying afternoon, but Natson had to endure a head-spinning week.
On Tuesday afternoon, Natson was at home in Florida. He had just returned from a workout when his phone started ringing: It was Rams special-teams coordinator John Fassel. Natson thought it was a pocket dial, but picked up anyway.
Two hours later, Natson was on a flight to Los Angeles. He had time to only grab a handful of clothes off the floor and shove them into his bag before leaving.
“Probably got mismatching shoes,” Natson said. “I really just said, ‘I’ll buy clothes when I get to L.A.”
And he virtually undressed the Cardinals’ coverage teams, averaging a whopping 22.2 yards per punt return. Natson said Cooper helped during the preseason when they watched film together and, with zero fair catches Sunday, took the advice to embrace every opportunity.
As for Hekker, who was awarded a game ball, he’d prefer to limit his opportunities to punting. Asked whether he could keep kicking, he sighed.
“If needed,” Hekker said. “Let’s hope I’m not, but if needed, I’ll be ready to go.”