Much of what Junior Hemingway does these days is pretty thankless work.
As the Chiefs’ fourth receiver, he gets to play maybe 20 percent of the offensive snaps, several of which he spends as a blocker in the team’s run-heavy formations. And if you turn on a game, you’re actually more likely to see him grinding away on special teams, where he is a cog on the Chiefs’ kick-return, kick-coverage, punt-return and punt-block units.
So when Hemingway gets a chance to make a big play on offense, he can barely contain himself. That’s what happened on his 17-yard touchdown catch early in the Chiefs’ 35-28 loss to Denver last week.
“I beat the man, and I looked back, I just saw Alex with the ball in the air,” Hemingway said Friday. “I’m like, ‘Oh, Junior, catch the ball. Just catch it.’ ”
The touchdown was Hemingway’s second of the season, and he finished the game with three catches for 42 yards, both of which were career-highs. He also complemented that with a solid special-teams effort, finishing with a career-high four tackles.
“Junior is a good blocker, a tough kid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You saw how well he did on special teams, likewise. Then he also has sure hands. We have increased his playing time here as the season has gone on.”
During the Chiefs’ first seven games, Hemingway averaged nearly 12 offensive snaps; during the last five games, he’s averaged 16. That may not seem like a big difference, but after spending practically all of last season on the Chiefs’ practice squad, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Hemingway couldn’t be more pleased to see his role increase for a winning team.
“From last year to this year, I’ve come a long way,” said Hemingway, a seventh-round pick of the Chiefs in 2012 out of Michigan. “It’s just a process. I don’t need to be a starter right now. I have a role, and I’ve embraced that role. So whenever the time comes (for that), that’s what it’s going to be.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Pedersen said Hemingway has earned the staff’s trust based on his performance in practice.
“He’s really come on as a receiver, and as you see we’ve given him more opportunities in games to make plays,” Pedersen said. “He’s a young receiver and learning, and again, we’re throwing a lot on him because we are putting him in different spots. We’re giving him the flanker spot. We’re giving him the inside slot spot. We’re also giving him the split end spot. So he’s done a nice job in handling that.”
Yet Hemingway hadn’t caught a pass in well over a month before Sunday. That’s because the Chiefs have also used him in some power-running sets, where he can use his size.
“It kind of goes back to Donnie (Avery)’s injury earlier in the season — (We) look for ways to get our receivers in the block position, and he’s a bigger guy,” Pedersen said. “He’s much like Dwayne (Bowe) in that way, a bigger-bodied guy. For us, it helps Donnie with that shoulder, to protect that shoulder, that injury.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Hemingway has the third highest run-blocking grade of any Chief (plus-0.9), behind fullback Anthony Sherman (plus-13.2) and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz (plus-4.0). In fact, Hemingway is currently the only Chiefs receiver to post a positive grade in that category, one in which he is currently tied for 15th among receivers across the league (though the vast majority of the players ahead of him had played at least twice as many snaps).
“At Michigan, that’s all we pretty much did,” Hemingway said of run blocking. “When you’re blocking out there and you spring a big play, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
But while playing receiver has come easy for Hemingway, he says he was barely used on special teams at Michigan. However, he has really started to embrace the third phase of the game this season, when a new regime — one that did not draft him — came in and made it a priority.
“This year was the year that I kind of tried to take advantage of it, to be the best I can be out there because I wanted to be out there on the field,” Hemingway said. “So whatever way that would be possible, that’s what I was gonna do.”
Hemingway says he often studies film of the opponents he’ll be going head-to-head with while on special teams. His duties on kickoff returns have presented him with the biggest challenge, he says, because he’s been matched up against defensive linemen a handful of times.
“I don’t have to kill ’em, but I’ve gotta get in his way a little bit,” Hemingway said. “I like the challenge, man. It’s whatever to me. I let ’em know it won’t be an easy fight.”
Special teams coach Dave Toub said Hemingway is a valuable player on all four kick/punt return and coverage units.
“He’s a blocker on kickoff return; he’s out there blocking one of their best players every time — the two coming off the edge — and he shuts them down every time,” Toub said. “On punt return, he’s an end, and he’s either a rusher or he comes back and folds and holds up one of their best cover guys there, too. Those things are things that people really don’t see all the time, but those are very, very important things for the return game.”
Despite his current role on special teams, Hemingway admits he still has dreams of being a top-flight receiver. But he’s more than willing to listen to his coaches and wait for more opportunities to come his way, as long as he can continue to help the team.
“I’m just taking what’s given to me,” Hemingway said, “and trying to take advantage of it all.”