GREEN BAY – Vanderbilt special teams coach Shawn Mennenga is set to succeed the fired Ron Zook in Green Bay.
Multiple sources said Mennenga interviewed with new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur recently. The Packers are just waiting for him to sign a contract before announcing the hire, a source confirmed. Mannenga spent seven seasons as an assistant special teams coach with the Cleveland Browns before becoming special teams coordinator in the college ranks.
On Thursday, the Packers announced that cornerbacks coach Jason Simmons has been promoted to defensive backs coach. He's entering his ninth season with the Packers. Defensive quality control coach Ryan Downard was promoted to assistant defensive backs coach.
The Packers also confirmed they have retained defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and running backs coach Ben Sirmans.
LaFleur also settled on a wide receivers coach. Alvis Whitted, the Colorado State wide receivers coach, agreed to a deal to coach receivers for the Packers. The team announced the hire Wednesday.
Whitted, who played nine seasons in the NFL (1998-2006) for Jacksonville and Oakland, began coaching at UCLA as quality controls coach. He moved to Colorado State in 2012 and coached Rashard Higgins, a fifth-round pick of the Browns, and Michael Gallup, a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
LaFleur had interviewed veteran receivers coach Karl Dorrell and Houston Texans assistant Wes Welker, but he also talked with several college coaches. Whitted replaces David Raih, who was allowed to interview and accept a job with the Arizona Cardinals.
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LaFleur interviewed at least four candidates for the special teams job, including Zook’s assistant for one year, Maurice Drayton, but appears to be leaning toward Mennenga, who spent seven seasons as an assistant for the Cleveland Browns before taking over at Vanderbilt.
Mennenga assisted Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor from 2011-17, which means he was there when Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was head coach and one of LaFleur’s mentors, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, was offensive coordinator.
Both may have given LaFleur some insight into Mennenga and how successful he might be given full reins of a special teams unit.
Tabor and Mennenga were both fired by then-Browns coach Hue Jackson after the 2017 season. Tabor was scooped up by the Chicago Bears, where he had previously been tutored by special teams guru Dave Toub, who is now in Kansas City.
Mennenga’s association with Tabor may have given the Packers confidence that he could handle a head special teams job. Having worked for Tabor for seven seasons, Mennenga probably has some connection to the schemes that Toub has used over the years.
Vanderbilt finished the 2018 season 6-7, including a 3-5 mark in the SEC. Their special teams were solid overall. Punter Parker Thome averaged 44.9 yards per punt, kicker Riley Guay hit just 13 of 22 field goals (47 of 47 extra points) and kick returner Jamauri Wakefield averaged 21.3 yards per return.
The Commodores ranked last in the SEC in kick return average (19.79) and fourth in punt return average (11.0). Opponents averaged 23.8 yards per kickoff return and 8.1 per punt return.
Mennenga's task will be enormous. The Packers ranked 32nd in former Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, which weighs all the key special teams statistics and creates a point value based on the final numbers.
The Packers tried to hire highly respected Miami Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi, but even though they were able to get him to make a visit they didn’t blow him away with their offer. Rizzi would have been working with a coach he didn’t know and moving his family to a cold-weather city.
Rizzi and LaFleur hit it off, the source said, but Rizzi left town without the offer he thought was forthcoming. Although the Packers met his number several days later, the source said, he decided to pull himself out of the running. He is expected to land with another NFL team.
After it was clear Rizzi wasn’t coming, LaFleur brought in Jacksonville Jaguars assistant Mike Mallory and New York Giants assistant Tom Flynn for interviews. Both of them had been full-time special teams coaches, but there has been no indication either is in the running for the Packers job.
LaFleur also interviewed Drayton, who was an assistant under Zook for just one year, coming from the Indianapolis Colts last season. Drayton may return as assistant special teams coach.
As a whole, the special teams coaching market was thin with Rizzi at the top and no one close to him at the time LaFleur began his search. In the meantime, NFC North rivals Detroit (John Bonamego) and Minnesota (Marwaan Maloof) hired coaches to lead their special teams.
Packers coaching staff
Here's how new Packers coach Matt LaFleur's staff is shaping up:
Coordinator –Nathaniel Hackett
Quarterbacks –Luke Getsy
Wide receivers – Alvis Whitted
Tight ends – Justin Outten
Running backs – Ben Sirmans
Offensive line – Adam Stenavich
Coordinator – Mike Pettine
Defensive line – Jerry Montgomery
Inside linebackers – Kirk Olivadotti
Outside linebackers – Mike Smith
Defensive backs – Jason Simmons
Assistant defensive backs – Ryan Downard
Special teams coordinator – Shawn Mennenga