Based on past results, Micah Hyde should be a lock to return punts this season for the Green Bay Packers.
Or is he?
“I have no idea,” said Hyde on Thursday after practice. “Like I said, I would like to if the opportunity is there I would love to do it, but other than that it’s a coaching decision.”
Hyde was No. 1 in the league in 2014 in punt return average at 15.8 yards on 14 returns. The season before as a rookie, he was a respectable eighth (among those with at least 15 returns) at 12.3 yards. He has three touchdowns in two seasons.
So, why should there be any doubt at all?
“I think that it shows what our returners are capable of doing, not just myself but with (Randall) Cobb, with Ty (Montgomery), whoever’s back there is capable of making a big play,” said Hyde. “They like to have competition and they have it. And as long as we have that, we’re all getting better.”
On paper at least, the Packers have some of their best options in years. Besides the league-leading Hyde, the aforementioned Cobb has been a spot-duty guy over the past two seasons. He also had 14 returns (plus nine fair catches) in 2014. And Montgomery is the newcomer everyone is talking about. He has the impressive background to match. At Stanford last season, he averaged 19.8 yards per punt return – second in the NCAA among those with at least 12 returns – and had two touchdowns. During his four-year career with the Cardinal, he also had a 27.4-yard kickoff-return average and three touchdowns on 91 returns.
“No question he’s a pretty good-sized guy that can run real well that’s very smart and is tough,” said new special teams coordinator Ron Zook. “If he’s not returning the ball, then he can block. For example on the punt return team, you know Micah Hyde is a guy that’s got three returns for touchdowns in the last two years – that’s pretty good. And so if Micah happens to be back there returning, then you want Ty to be a guy forcing the punt or blocking. He’s a guy that’s bought in. He’s willing to do anything he can do.”
The kickoff-return team has really been the sore spot on special teams over the past two seasons. Ranking 31st in return average tn 2014 and 30th in 2013, the Packers have gotten next to nothing from that unit.
Several of the core special teams veterans from last season are gone, including primary kick return man DuJuan Harris (22 returns in 2014). While the kick-return unit is always in a state of flux, the Packers have taken a step back so far this training camp and have simplified their schemes. Early on, they have focused on breaking down the fundamentals of the kickoff from where guys line up to where they drop to how they block. Said Zook, “We went back to ground zero just because we’re so young and have so many new guys and really started from the ground up.”
Of course, having a dynamic return man can cover up for mistakes. The Packers know that Cobb can be that man and that Montgomery might. But the remainder of training camp and the preseason games could uncover more possibilities and better ways to use personnel.
Last preseason, Jeff Janis had a 62-yard kickoff return but was incomplete as a receiver to be on the active roster for game days. Fellow draft pick Jared Abbrederis also looked in practice like a prime candidate for punt returns until a torn ACL ended his training camp and season. A concussion in this year’s camp on the first day of practice has held him out since.
Ball security will be one of the first tests to pass and could be a depth-chart changer – especially for rookies. Last year in the preseason opener at Tennessee, Davante Adams was the first man up for punt returns. After muffing two attempts in the first quarter – albeit in a monsoon-like rain – he became more of an afterthought.
Neither Harris nor Hyde fumbled last regular season. The younger guys this year will get plenty of opportunity.
“Well, I think obviously Ty Montgomery,” began Zook. “Jeff Janis, we get him back there catching as much as we can. (Jimmie) Hunt has impressed me as a guy who can catch the ball. (Javess) Blue is a guy who can catch the football. (Larry) Pinkard is another guy. That’s why even Saturday (Family Night) - being that it’s a practice - it’s still different because you have a lot of people out there. I remember last year I couldn’t believe it. I walked out there and saw all these people, and thought, ‘This is a practice?’ With those young guys, it’s good for them to catch the ball. For them to be in that situation, it’s different from catching it from the jugs (machine). A lot of times you find out a lot of things about how a guy’s going to handle that kind of pressure. How do you work on – the only way you get experience is you have to play. That’s the situation you try to put them in.
“I think early you use a lot of guys, and then it will weed itself out as you go and once again, we’re doing a lot of work, not full cover work where it’s just a cage drill where they’re getting opportunities to catch the ball and you’re not running the crap out of everybody and you can kind of see what the returners can do. That’s giving us reps that you wouldn’t normally get.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org