Zook to rebuild special teams with ‘young blood’
Ron Zook built his coaching reputation on a fast-paced personality and take-no-prisoners approach to football.
Now the Green Bay Packers are hoping the 61-year-old coach can energize a special teams unit that fell into disarray last season, falling to last in the Dallas Morning News’ annual composite rankings.
One thing is certain early on, Zook’s passion hasn’t wavered.
“You know how you got high-motor guys on the football field? Take that and put it in coaching. A thousand miles-an-hour,” said third-year linebacker Nate Palmer, who was recruited by Zook to Illinois.
“He’ll talk so fast some times, he trips himself up. That’s just how he is. He says the object is to fit 10 pounds of crap in a 5-pound bag. That’s what he’s saying. That’s what he’s preaching, and that’s exactly the truth.”
Rebuilding Green Bay’s special teams is no small task. After two significant blunders in the NFC title game, the Packers sacked longtime assistant Shawn Slocum, who had been on coach Mike McCarthy’s first staff in 2006, and completely overhauled their player personnel.
Fifty-three players contributed to the Packers’ 4,824 special teams snaps last season, according to Football Outsiders. A key group of seven players no longer with the team, including veterans Jarrett Bush and DuJuan Harris, accounted for 1,379 of those snaps (28.6 percent).
The total number of players no longer with the team account for 32.5 percent of those special teams snaps, a stark increase from the 21 percent turnover from 2013 to 2014. Whatever was lost in experience, the Packers hope can be replaced with athleticism and hunger.
“You’ve got a lot of fresh, young blood in there,” Zook said. “We’ve lost of a lot of core guys. You can look at it two different ways. Obviously, you’ve got some young guys that you’ve got to coach up and get them ready to go.
“But on the other hand, these guys are excited about being able to play in the National Football League and being with the Green Bay Packers. You’ve got that enthusiasm. It’s up to us to coach them up and get them doing the things at a very high speed.”
The Packers didn’t discard everyone. They matched the one-year, $2.55 million offer sheet the Oakland Raiders extended to restricted free agent Sean Richardson, who led special teams with 17 coverage tackles.
They also stood by punter Tim Masthay after a trying second half when his gross (40.1) and net (33.6) averages dipped significantly on his last 21 regular-season attempts.
Loyalty has paid off for the Packers in the past. Few teams would have stood by Mason Crosby when he converted only 63.6 percent of his field goals in 2012. He’s since made 69 of 79 attempts (87.3 percent) over the past two seasons, including playoffs.
Zook, who was Slocum’s assistant last season, reached out immediately after his promotion to tell Masthay he believed in him. The Packers still brought in former Alabama punter Cody Mandell to compete with Masthay, marking the first time Green Bay has had two punters in camp since 2010.
Mandell, 23, signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent and punted in one preseason game. He had three punts inside the 20 against San Diego with a 42.0 net average, but was released two days later.
“We looked at Cody last year coming out and felt like he was a guy that had a chance to kick in this league,” Zook said. “There’s only 32 of those guys in the world. For him to be able to step in there and do the things that he did in Dallas and of course we brought him in and he worked out. He’s got a lot of confidence. I think he’s fit right in.”
Long snapper Brett Goode hasn’t missed a game in seven years. While he’s avoided any game-changing mistakes, Goode didn’t have a coverage tackle last season and had a role in Bryan Braman blocking Masthay’s punt against Philadelphia.
The one area where the Packers don’t need an immediate upgrade is at punt returner where Micah Hyde platooned with Randall Cobb last season. The third-year cornerback led all NFL punt returners with a 15.8-yard average and two touchdowns on 14 attempts.
It was a different story on kickoff returns, where Green Bay ranked 31st with a 19.1-yard average. The hapless state of the unit was reiterated when the Packers made their primary returner, Harris, a healthy scratch for the final three games.
One possible answer came in the third round of the draft when the Packers selected Stanford’s Ty Montgomery. As a senior, Montgomery returned 17 kickoffs for 429 yards (25.2 avg.) and 12 punts for 238 yards (19.8 avg.) with two touchdowns.
Shortly after Montgomery’s selection, Packers scout Sam Seale compared him to a bigger version of Cobb. That’s high praise considering the Pro Bowl receiver played a large role in reviving Green Bay’s return units in 2011 and 2012.
Two returning receivers, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, also could factor into that battle. Like Hyde, Abbrederis doesn’t have world-class speed, but his savviness made him effective during his time at the University of Wisconsin.
Coaches at Saginaw Valley State felt Janis could have been a great returner on kickoffs and punts, but the offense couldn’t risk losing him to injury. Cobb handled some returns during the offseason program, but just signed a four-year, $40 million contract in March.
The other key will be containing opposing teams better than last year. The low point came against Buffalo in Week 15 when Marcus Thigpen returned a punt for a 75-yard touchdown in the 21-13 defeat.
The protection units also gave up an alarming number of blocks, especially after Josh Sitton (toe) and T.J. Lang (toe) were sidelined with injury.
Crosby had three field goals and two extra points batted down last season after having six combined during his first seven NFL seasons. The same was true for Masthay, who had two punts blocked after having only one in his first four years.
To increase accountability and show the team’s dedication to the oft-forgotten phase, McCarthy has inserted himself as the third coach in the special teams room. Several players said during the offseason program that McCarthy had been in every meeting.
There have been a lot of changes on special teams this offseason, but the Packers hope putting the unit in Zook’s hands will trigger change. As Zook points out, it won’t be just one person who spurs a turnaround. To be successful, the job must be done collectively.
“I think X’s and O’s are overrated on offense, defense and special teams,” Zook said. “It still comes down to the Jesses and Joes. It comes down to the guys playing and making things happen. The thing that I really love about Coach McCarthy’s philosophy, let’s make sure our guys are playing fast. Football is a reaction game, and if they have to think on what they’re doing, they’re not going to be as fast, they’re not going to be reacting.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.