Often times during training camp, Johnathan Franklin looked like a running back who never had consistently worked as a returner on special teams.
A fourth-round pick out of UCLA, the Green Bay Packers rookie showed enough natural explosiveness for the position, but was noticeably raw in how he fielded kickoffs and punts.
Since then, Packers special-teams coach Shawn Slocum has seen consistent progress from Franklin to the point of giving him the chance to return kickoffs during Sunday’s 22-9 win over Detroit.
Franklin didn’t have the chance to do much of anything on Sunday as Detroit’s offense was non-existent without star receiver Calvin Johnson. That resulted in only two kickoffs (both went for touch backs) and a late on-side kick attempt.
Although Franklin didn’t have a chance to take one out of the end zone against Detroit, the job appears to be his for the time being.
“I thought he had a good week of practice,” Slocum said. “We caught a lot of ball last week in various situations and he caught the ball well. He had a problem with the sun yesterday. On the first one, he lost the ball in the sun so he backed off of it, which I thought was a smart play. The second kickoff was really deep and did not field it.”
By all accounts, the Packers took their decision in naming a kickoff returner against the Lions into the 11th hour after spending the week rotating through returners in the wake of releasing Jeremy Ross during the bye week.
The option to use Franklin was based on what he’d shown on 13 carries for 103 yards against the Bengals in relief of an injured James Starks, an indication to Slocum of what the 5-foot-10, 205-pound running back can do if he gets into the open field.
Prior to fielding his first kickoff, Franklin had already been benched on offense after fumbling his second carry in his last four attempts dating back to Cincinnati. Slocum said he weighed the lapse, but never second-guessed using Franklin on returns afterward.
Going into Sunday’s game against Baltimore, there doesn't appear to be an indication of taking him out of that role as the kickoff return unit looks to improve on its NFL-worst kickoff return average of 12.1 yards per return.
“I think he’s made a lot of progress to the point we feel comfortable putting him out there,” Slocum said. “He’s a good runner and he demonstrated that when he had his opportunity in Cincinnati. He’s a guy who can make plays.”
Since the offseason program, Slocum has been consistently peppered with questions about Randall Cobb’s status on returns and he still remains in the picture as evidenced by the fact he continues to field punt returns deep in Packers’ territory.
However, the Packers like what they’ve seen so far from Franklin and fellow rookie Micah Hyde, who handled two standard punt returns against the Lions for seven yards.
The wild card remains recently signed practice-squad receiver Reggie Dunn, who set an NCAA record with five kickoff returns for a touchdown during his time at Utah, including four during his senior season with the Utes.
The one thing Dunn didn’t consistently do was return punts, but Slocum said he’s shown fine fundamentals in practice on fielding balls. They key for Dunn will be showing he can play at this level where the holes close quicker, the balls fly deeper and higher and coverage guys are faster down the field.
If he shows the ability to do that, Slocum believes “he’s got some great tools to potentially be a good one.”
The Packers could have promoted Dunn on Monday when inside linebacker Robert Francois went on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon, but instead went with cornerback James Nixon.
Nixon has some return experience during his college days at Temple and California (Pa.), but it seems more likely he’ll be used to help fill Francois’ void on the coverage and return units.
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