Special Teams Adds to Challenge, Opportunity

The rookies' accelerated learning curve due to the lockout is heightened by the special teams education. "They have to learn our schemes," Slocum said. "They have to learn how to be a pro, how to practice, what the expectations are. It's a fast-paced growing process for those guys right now."

It's not just that D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor have had to learn the offensive playbook on the fly during the first two-and-a-half weeks of training camp.

It's that they've got to learn the special teams playbook, as well.

"It's a challenge but it's obviously a challenge you want to have," said Taylor, a tight end who was a seventh-round pick based largely on his special teams handiwork at North Carolina. You'd like to have to learn the offense and then be on the first team (on special teams). That's what everybody's here for. It's tough but you've got to put in the time and be accountable for what they're asking you to do. Hopefully, it'll pay you back in the end."

At practice this week, Taylor has been on the No. 1s on all four core special teams units: kickoff return, kickoff, punt and punt return. Williams, a fifth-round tight end, is a No. 1 on punt return and is working with all of the other units. Fellow rookie D.J. Smith, a sixth-round linebacker, is a "starter" on the punt return, kickoff and kickoff return.

Taylor is an anomaly among rookies in that he has a wealth of experience playing special teams. He was North Carolina's three-time special teams player of the year and a two-year captain in a pro-style system implemented by former Tar Heels coach Butch Davis, the former Cleveland Browns coach and Dallas Cowboys assistant.

Other than kickoff return, in which he played most of his career, Williams didn't play special teams at Arkansas because he was such a big part of the offense as one of the top tight ends in the nation. Third-round pick Alex Green played special teams at Hawaii as a junior but not as a senior, when he led the nation in yards per rushing attempt.

With few exceptions, rookies in the NFL — especially rookies signed by the Super Bowl champions — had better be able and, perhaps more importantly, willing to play special teams if they want to make the roster.

"They don't have a choice. They have to embrace it," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said.

This year's been a challenge for Slocum — though he's a man who knows all about challenges after last year's injury-riddled merry-go-round. Just like offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have had to teach their intricate systems on the fly rather than over a three-month span, Slocum's had to teach his schemes and techniques on rapid-fire fashion.

Slocum's challenge is bigger in some ways. While, to a certain extent, a running play is a running play on offense and a pass rush is a pass rush on defense, that's not the case on special teams. That means there's more to be learned in terms of technique. Thus, most special teams periods start with training on specific aspects of the play before the full play is practiced.

"They have to learn it all," Slocum said. "They have to learn the game and how the NFL game is different. They have to learn our schemes. They have to learn how to be a pro, how to practice, what the expectations are. It's a fast-paced growing process for those guys right now."

In that regard, Taylor and Williams are lucky. As rookie tight ends, they've been roommates at training camp and been able to help each other through the learning process, from the meeting room to their dorm room.

"It is good to have a roommate like Ryan Taylor, not only because he's a tight end but we've bonded," Williams said. "We're in the same boat together. We go to the meeting room and show up a little early and stay a little late. Our coach (tight ends coach Ben McAdoo) told us, ‘You better be happy that there's two of you and not one of you because it'd be a whole lot harder.'"

It's been hard enough, mentally and physically.

"You've got to be in shape because when you're at practice doing about five reps of special teams and running down the field about 80 yards at full speed and then turning around and trying to get 10 reps in a row in the offensive huddle, that's when you start getting fatigued," Williams said. "Then the mental thing starts to collapse. That's something I'm getting used to. I've been here for three weeks and think I've got a pretty good grasp."

Still, special teams always has been about attitude. Attitude isn't a problem, especially when coach Mike McCarthy calls special teams the "vehicle" for a rookie to make the team.

"Honestly, I don't think it's about talent, especially at this level," Taylor said. "It's just a want-to. You've got to want to do it. Some of the aspects of special teams are not a whole lot of fun. Two guys running full speed and hitting each other isn't always the most enjoyable thing. But you've got to want to do it and you've got to want to be better than the other guy."

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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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