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Did Steelers Find Their Punt Returner?

A rookie opened eyes with his first punt return of the spring, while another newcomer can't wait to show off his skills today as a kickoff returner. Also, an update on JuJu Smith-Schuster.

PITTSBURGH -- If the Pittsburgh Steelers were to act decisively and boldly, they would announce their new punt returner after the very first practice rep of the spring.

Of course, they don't operate that way but it appears that Cameron Sutton might force the issue.

The rookie cornerback lined up first -- ahead of Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers -- in the opening PR drill of the season Wednesday. Sutton caught the punt, got into his sprint, cut sharply at full speed and finished up in the end zone.

It was his first, and last, return of the day because Sutton had to "get some gunner reps" on the defensive side of the workout.

Perhaps that lack of reps is part of the reason Mike Tomlin so rarely uses defensive players to return kicks.

Did Tomlin tell the rookie that?

"No, he never told me that," said Sutton, who was a dangerous return man in college at Tennessee.

Sutton returned three punts for touchdowns as a Vol and averaged 14.3 yards per return. That's 4.3 more than his stated goal.

"We want to steal 10 and get the offense going in the right direction," he explained. "Anything that happens after (10) is always special."

Sutton didn't return punts as a freshman, and returned only six as a senior before breaking his fibula and missing most of the season. But as a sophomore, Sutton averaged 11.3 yards per return with one touchdown, and as a junior he returned a career-high 25 punts, averaged a whopping 18 yards per return and scored a pair of touchdowns.

"It's something I'm real comfortable doing, ever since I've been playing football," Sutton said. "At this stage you're just relying on your front 10. Those are your best friends. Those are your guys you've got to get around and finish it with. And it's bigger than just those moments when you're out there as a punt returner. All of the work that goes into those moments, the constant communication with those guys, knowing their thought process, knowing the returns out there on the field, and then just from a punt returner's aspect I always want to catch the ball first because that's the ball for the offense."

While Tomlin has looked for a return man to replace Antonio Brown -- in order to give his valued wide receiver a rest and to minimize the injury risk -- the coach hasn't given many chances to defensive players. After using Allen Rossum throughout the 2007 season (6.4 avg.), Tomlin's first with the Steelers, no defensive player has lined up as a punt returner. 

Sutton should break that dry spell.

"Some veteran guys told me it looks like I've been doing it a while," Sutton said after Wednesday's practice. "It's about the constant competition and taking it one day at a time. Continue to get with the vets, continue to stay in the playbook, compete every day, come to work every day, and everything falls into place."


Knile Davis has received plenty of work in the backfield this spring with Le'Veon Bell home and rookie James Conner recovering from a hamstring injury. But Davis has yet to show off his skills as a kickoff returner. 

He's hoping the Steelers work on that aspect of special teams for the first time today.

"For sure next week," said Davis, who signed with the Steelers as a free agent in March.

Davis came out of Arkansas the same year Bell came out of Michigan State, but Davis was faster. At 5-11 3/8, 227 he was timed in the 40 at the NFL Combine in 4.37 seconds. And he showed that speed to the Steelers six months later when he returned a kickoff 109 yards for a preseason touchdown.

"I remember getting my bell rung on the first kickoff return," Davis said. "The second time I just wanted to make up for it. I caught it deep in the end zone, caught a seam and went 109. It was a good memory. We won the game."

Davis went on to return 10 kickoffs that season with a 32.1 average and a 108-yard touchdown.

In 2014, Davis returned 29 kickoffs at a 28.6 clip with a 99-yard touchdown.

In 2015, his 25.1 average would've been higher had his 106-yard return in the playoffs counted in the regular-season stats.

Overall, Davis has a career average of 26.8 yards per kickoff return, a number that would rank second all-time in Steelers history behind 1950s star Lynn Chandnois (29.6).

As a running back, Davis' best season was 2014 when he recorded career highs of 463 rushing yards, 3.5 yards per carry and 16 receptions. He had hoped to replace the injured Jamaal Charles in the middle of the 2015 season, but the Chiefs turned to Charcandrick West instead and the following season traded Davis to the Green Bay Packers.

Davis lasted only two weeks with the Packers, was claimed by the New York Jets on waivers and "was released by the Jets in two hours," he said. Davis then went back to Kansas City to finish the season before signing with the Steelers.

Davis isn't sure why he bounced from team to team last season. He was healthy, said he still runs in the 4.3s, and now has his weight down to 224. Davis said he isn't carrying a big chip on his shoulder coming into this season.

"A little bit," he admitted, "but it's more of a fresh start and just having fun playing the game that I love to play. The past is the past. I'm going in a straight direction. Everything's in front of me and I'm just happy. Really."


While Davis beamed about making a catch of a bad Ben Roethlisberger pass and spinning it into a touchdown during red-zone work, rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster did the same when asked about catching a Roethlisberger bullet as an inside receiver in the same drill.

"Oh yeah, yeah," Smith-Schuster said with a big smile. "When I'm thrown in there with Ben, I get too excited. Write 10 times 'I've got to keep calm.'"

Smith-Schuster said he's working both the inside and outside receiver positions, and when he's in with the first team he's usually inside of Brown and Martavis Bryant.

"That's what I strive for," he said. "We all want to start and obviously you want to play with the best of the best."

Smith-Schuster said he's learning from Brown about releases off the line and "routes in general."

"When I'm watching film," Smith-Schuster said, "first I watch the play and then I watch the offense and then I watch AB, his whole section, and what I can take out of him every day."

After practice, the rookie catches at least 240 passes off the JUGS machine. He's obsessed with getting better.

"Just today I was watching AB and Ben," he said. "That's eight years they've put together. That's something I would want with a quarterback."

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