Training camp preview: Special teams

Rookie Jordy Nelson adds explosiveness to promising return units that feature Will Blackmon and Tramon Williams.

Good-bye, Koren Robinson. Hello, Jordy Nelson.

While coach Mike McCarthy has high hopes for the rookie second-round pick's long-term potential on the passing game, perhaps the way he'll make an immediate impact is on special teams.

Nelson's potential as a returner is intriguing. He was an honorable-mention all-Big 12 returner last season at Kansas State despite running back a mere five punts. Three of those, however, were turned into touchdowns, including runbacks of 92 and 87 yards.

While he didn't return kickoffs for the Wildcats, he'll be given every opportunity to handle that duty this season for Green Bay. The Packers need a replacement for Koren Robinson, who averaged a solid 23.8 yards per runback with a long of 67 last season but was waived this offseason.

"I definitely would like to do it (return kicks)," Nelson said last month "It's just another way to help out the team, and I would be able to get out on the field and play. Kickoff return is not maybe as wide open as a punt return might be, but for the most part, it's just reading the blocks and going where you are supposed to go."

The battle to return kickoffs will be one of the most hotly contested during training camp. Incumbent Tramon Williams, who averaged 22.8 yards on a team-high 30 kickoff returns last season, with a long of 65, headlines that group. His big-play potential was shown when he returned a pooch punt 95 yards for a touchdown against Carolina.

Will Blackmon, Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency, Shaun Bodiford and rookie Brett Swain also figure into the mix.

"We've got so many young guys, so it is really going to be exciting for us," said special-teams coordinator Mike Stock. "We are looking forward to the preseason and certainly when we can finally get the pads on and see what these guys can do under the real pressure of a game."

The wild card for kickoff and punt returns is the oft-injured Blackmon, who played in just 13 games during his first two seasons due to a chronic foot problem. When healthy, Blackmon is nothing short of electric. He scored two touchdowns against Oakland in December, including a 57-yarder on a punt in which he flashed his natural return skills.

"Will Blackmon is clearly one of the better athletes on our football team, and personally, it's really gratifying just to see him out here with what he's gone through," McCarthy said after that game. "Just to overcome the injuries that that he's been battling the last year and a half and to have the opportunity he had today and take full advantage of it. He's an explosive young man."

If Blackmon can't stay healthy to field punts, the likely candidates are Nelson, Swain (8.8 yards per punt return as a senior at San Diego State) or sure-handed veteran cornerback Charles Woodson. Woodson likely will be a last resort, though, because he was injured returning a punt against Detroit and missed the next game against Dallas.

Because of the presumptive switch in quarterbacks to first-year starter Aaron Rodgers, the return units are more important than ever. The better the field position, obviously, the better the odds of success on offense.

Bill Huber writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at

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