Cobb Showed Early Toughness as Returner

Randall Cobb, who recalls getting drilled on his first punt return as a middle-schooler, could be the returner to solve a ghastly 178-game drought without a touchdown on a kickoff return.

Randall Cobb fielded the kickoff, burst through a small hole and might have been off to the races had he not run into one of his blockers at about the 35-yard line.

It was just the second practice of training camp and it wasn't a live drill. But the fans at Ray Nitschke Field on Sunday night, who have grown accustomed to the Packers' annual ineptitude returning kickoffs, roared its approval.

Cobb is aware of the ugly history.

"Not exactly but I know it has been awhile," Cobb said when asked if he knew how long it'd been since the Green Bay Packers have returned a kickoff for a touchdown. "Hopefully we can get that done."

To be exact, the Packers haven't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Allen Rossum's 92-yard dash against the Colts on Nov. 19, 2000, at Lambeau Field.

Cobb, the Packers' second-round pick out of Kentucky, was 10 years old at the time.

"I don't think we returned kicks in peewee ball," Cobb said with a laugh. "I think my first time returning was middle school and I got laid out. I don't know why I still do it after that."

Cobb returned kicks for his final two seasons in college, averaging 24.6 yards on kickoff returns and 9.8 yards with two touchdowns on punt returns. With James Jones re-signed, Cobb might not be asked to play a major role on offense as a rookie. But where Cobb could make a major impact is on special teams, specifically returning kicks, which has been a chronic weakness.

Will Blackmon returned two punts for touchdowns in 2008 but a torn ACL early in 2009 took away a major weapon. Kickoff returns, on the other hand, have been a bleak phase of the game for years. Churning through four players, the Packers averaged 20.1 yards per runback last season. Only once in the last six years (2007) have the Packers averaged more yards per kickoff return than they've allowed. Since Rossum's touchdown — which, including playoffs, came 178 games ago — the Packers have had just three returns of longer than 60 yards.

On Sunday night, third-round pick Alex Green got the first rep on kickoff returns, with Cobb next in line. On punts, Cobb got the first crack at it on Sunday, followed by some of the undrafted receivers.

"I think that's something that hopefully I'll be able to do and help us get better field position to start the drive and get Aaron on the field and start the offensive moving," Cobb said.

That Blackmon's promising career was torpedoed by a litany of injuries only continued a trend in Green Bay. Rossum, even with a punt return touchdown in 2001, was mostly a one-year wonder. So was Roell Preston in 1998 and Desmond Howard in 1996. The last multiyear standout was Robert Brooks, who returned two kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns in 1993 and 1994 before becoming the go-to receiver in 1995.

Maybe Cobb is that guy who finally can give the offense the advantage of needing only 70 yards to score a touchdown rather than 75 or 80.

"No. 1, he's a good catcher of the ball," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said while meeting with a few reporters before the start of camp. "I think he gets off the spot well. I think he has the ability as a punt returner to catch the ball, get sideways and get vertical quickly. Rarely saw him get hit very hard. He does a good job of being small on contact where there's not a large surface to hit. I think he's got good strength. He's a strong runner. When he ran their wildcat stuff out of their offense, I saw him basically run a dive play inside and traps and inside zones where he's running into linebackers and falling forward. Some of the attributes I saw, I see in Josh Cribbs. I like what I see. We'll see if he can have that kind of production. I hope he does."

If he can perform anything like Cribbs, who has 10 touchdown returns in six seasons, the Packers will thank their lucky stars that a certain middle-school football player learned a lesson rather than gave up on being a returner.

"I learned my lesson the first time I did it," Cobb said of getting whacked immediately after fielding a punt. "I came running full speed forward and caught the ball and somebody just took my head off. I learned my lesson by not sprinting forward. You've got to be cautious about how you do it and understand the return game.

"I held onto the ball, though."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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