Wind gusted over Ray Nitschke Field on Saturday, and Ty Montgomery was nervous.
The Green Bay Packers rookie felt rusty. Through summer training, Montgomery hadn’t returned a single kickoff. He couldn’t. Where he trained, there were no kickers.
Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a problem. Montgomery is a natural. His knack for returning kicks enticed the Packers to draft him with a third-round pick in May. But the wind gusted Saturday, and when that first kickoff dropped like a knuckleball in front of him, Montgomery felt butterflies.
“A little nerves,” Montgomery said, “but I feel comfortable now.”
Montgomery looked comfortable during the Packers’ first practice in pads. He didn’t just catch hard-to-handle kickoffs with ease. He caught everything. Bubble screens. Tricky hops off the turf. A jump ball down field over cornerback LaDarius Gunter.
If a ball was heading in Montgomery’s direction Saturday, he wasn’t muffing it.
“Ty’s a playmaker,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Strong. Very powerful. Obviously gifted. So it was good to see him back there.”
Montgomery flashed his play-making ability Saturday. Early in practice, he took a reverse handoff and broke away down the left sideline, running past the defense. He caught check-down passes and chewed up extra yards. He was first up for kickoff-return reps.
His athleticism wasn’t surprising, of course. The Packers know he has big-time potential. On the night he was drafted, West Coast scout Sam Seale called Montgomery a “bigger Randall Cobb.” Montgomery, at 6-foot and almost 220 pounds, is built like a running back.
The problem, scouts thought before the draft, was the former Stanford receiver also caught footballs like a running back. Which is to say Montgomery doesn’t catch well at all.
“I’ve definitely heard it before,” Montgomery said. “I don’t feel like I need to prove that. Yeah, I had two or three bad games in college where I dropped a few balls, but somebody pointed out to me that my catch rate in college was like 90 percent or something like that.
“I’ve always known I have really good hands, and I can catch the ball well. So I never felt like I needed to prove anything to anybody.”
Montgomery said the criticism started midway through his sophomore season at Stanford. In a game at Washington, the Cardinal was marching late in the fourth quarter. Montgomery, open at the 5-yard line, dropped what would’ve been the game-winning touchdown, and the drive stalled.
“It was a tough catch,” Montgomery said Saturday, “but I dropped the game-winner. From there, people were saying I can’t catch.”
As a senior, Montgomery had a drop rate of 7.58 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. It ranked 55th of 180 draft-eligible receivers. Which is why, with all the head-turning plays Saturday, the most important was his highlight-worthy catch over Gunter.
Montgomery said he recognized press coverage and knew he’d have to get up field quickly. Once he beat Gunter off the line, he tracked rookie quarterback Brett Hundley’s fade pass.
“I saw it was a little bit short,” Montgomery said, “so I knew I had to come back and high-point the ball. That was my thought process, was just release and grab it.”
It was the kind of catch many didn’t expect Montgomery could make. Montgomery said he wasn’t surprised.
If his hands aren’t elite, they also don’t appear to be the debilitating problem some scouts feared. Asked why some analysts saw him as a running back, Montgomery shrugged. He works on his hands constantly, he said, but that’s just to maintain his craft.
No, Montgomery doesn’t believe it’s a weakness.
“I feel like I’ve always had good hands,” Montgomery said. “It just seems so natural to me, and it’s always weird to hear people say I can’t catch and I don’t have hands. It kind of blows my mind a little bit because I’ve made a lot of catches throughout my career at Stanford.”
That would be 172 catches in four years, which ranks fifth all-time at Stanford. Montgomery caught 61 passes as a junior, then 61 again as a senior. No teammate finished within 20 receptions of him in either season.
Many of Montgomery’s receptions came on underneath routes. Half his routes were screens or hitches, with only 12 percent deep downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. He’ll have to branch out in the NFL, using the full route tree.
Montgomery already started expanding his knowledge of the position. In meetings, he asks questions but admits he gets frustrated when he doesn’t know something. Teammates assure him he’s asking the right questions.
“He’s a very studious guy, obviously, coming from Stanford,” Cobb said of Montgomery. “He asks a lot of good questions, and that’s great to see from a young guy whenever he’s that detailed and trying to pick up on things.”
Before he was drafted, Montgomery had a head start learning the Packers offense.
While most college programs run a simplified spread system, Stanford coach David Shaw stuck with a pro-style offense. Montgomery said his college offense is similar to the hybrid West Coast system McCarthy runs, helping him learn his new playbook quickly.
McCarthy said the mental part of football comes “naturally” to Montgomery. It’s the receiver’s hands that might dictate how quickly he finds a role in an offense that returns every starter from the league’s top-scoring unit last fall. So far, drops haven’t been an issue. Even with some funny hops.
“Just a little bit of wind moving around,” McCarthy said. “A couple knuckleballers on the kickoff. So that will be work for him that, I think, his exposure to weather is probably not to the level of what he’s going to experience here. But I think he’s fit in nicely on offense, made some plays. So he’s off to a good start.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.