GREEN BAY – In his second season as Green Bay Packers punter, JK Scott has found a sweet spot that had been eluding him.
A little less than two weeks into training camp, Scott started to boom the ball the way general manager Brian Gutekunst hoped he would when he drafted the Alabama punter in the fifth round last year.
It happened after Scott got off four mediocre punts in a joint practice with the Houston Texans. His next five punts were 55, 49, 49, 52 and 51 yards, the last four of which averaged 4.7-second hang time.
Since that time, he has consistently reached distances in the mid-40s and beyond on punts in which he has swung away. He has improved his preseason punting average from 45.2 yards last season to 48.1 and seen a minor drop in net average from 42.7 to 40.7.
The big difference in his game is better consistency when he swings away.
“I would say that I made a change this summer and it wasn’t a technical change,” he said. “It was kind of technical, but it was more like this summer I really focused on my game, feeling balanced.”
Scott said that while at Alabama, any time he had a lot of field in front of him he would try to kill the ball and wind up with a 40-yard punt with 4.0-second hang time. Then when he was trying to drop the ball inside the 20, he would hit the kind of ball he wanted to hit when he was kicking away.
“I’d raise my drop a little bit and I’d hit the thing like 10 yards out of the back of the end zone, like 5.4 hang time,” Scott said of punts from around the 50-yard line. “So, that’s just pretty much what I’ve been (focusing on) this offseason is why can I swing so easy and so comfortably and hit such a good ball and then when I try so hard and I strain, I’m not really hitting good balls.
“That was kind of my goal this summer, get comfortable.”
Among punters with 10 or more attempts this preseason, Scott ranks tied for seventh in gross average and 10th in net average. At the end of last exhibition season, he ranked 16th in gross and sixth in net.
His last two games have been outstanding.
Against Baltimore, he averaged 52.8 yards per punt and had hang times of 5.0 seconds or better on each one. Against Oakland, on an abbreviated 80-yard field, he averaged 56.6 yards per punt with hang times averaging 4.47 seconds on punts in which he swung away.
Scott’s biggest challenge — besides maintaining a decent average in cold temperatures — is keeping the ball out of the middle of the field. Too often the ball drifted to the middle last year and he was partially responsible for opponents averaging 10.3 yards per return (27th in the league).
“I think JK’s developing into a really good young player,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “Just again, more consistency. He’s doing a good job with his placement. We always want the ball outside the numbers. It’s tough to cover punts in this league, especially if you’re kicking to a dynamic returner, if that ball’s in the middle of the field.”
Oren Burks on upswing
Oren Burks doesn’t know how long his partially torn pectoral muscle will keep him out, but the timeline he has in mind should be enough to bypass starting his season on injured reserve.
“I don’t think months,” Burks said. “I think it’ll be a couple weeks.”
Burks injured his pectoral muscle in the Packers' preseason opener against the Houston Texans, ending what was a critical camp for the second-year linebacker. Initially, Burks said, he feared the injury would cost him all of the 2019 season.
“Most of the time with pec injuries,” Burks said, “you’re pretty much done for the season. I was praying that it would be something else, and it ended up being some great news. I’m really excited.”
The great news was Burks only partially tore his pectoral, greatly accelerating his timeline for recovery. Now, Burks said, it’s mostly a matter of when his shoulder feels good enough to play. It’s unlikely he’ll be available early in the season, but if the Packers placed him on injured reserve, he’d miss eight weeks before being eligible to return.
Burks said he’ll wear a shoulder harness this season. He did the same last season with a similar injury. The hope is a harness minimizes the punishment his shoulder takes, something that’s especially important as a linebacker.
It certainly wasn’t ideal for Burks to miss the final three exhibitions. In his second year, this was a critical camp for a player who could give the Packers something they're missing: speed and cover ability at inside linebacker. Burks said he entered camp wanting to improve his eye discipline, as well as getting more comfortable with the game’s speed.
He said watching practice film, especially from the end-zone angle, has helped because it shows the same view he sees on the field.
“You lock into what your reads are,” Burks said. “There’s little tendencies you can kind of pick up from coaches. Coach KO (linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti) has really been helping out with that, and Blake as well, in terms of you might be able to get a template for something like this. It’s little things like that that kind of help you anticipate plays instead of reacting. On top of that, discipline, going through a check list in your mind, ‘All right, this is what I’ve got on this play. This is where my eyes are. This is how it’s going to help me.’ Whether he goes back or forward, that type of thing.”
Meanwhile, the Packers waived inside linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, who was claimed off waivers earlier this week from the Ravens, after he failed his physical.
No fit for Josh Jones
Gutekunst said the decision to release safety Josh Jones went deeper than just his performance.
Jones, a second-round pick in 2017, never found a place in either Mike Pettine's or Dom Capers’ defense and he reportedly wanted a trade during the offseason. A source said he was also unhappy during the 2018 offseason.
“I’m not going to go into it too much, but I think fit, it’s not only your ability on the field, but I think in the organization, as a whole,” Gutekunst said. “We wish him well. I’m fond of Josh. I think he’s going to have a bright career in front of him. It’ll be interesting where he ends up.”
Thursday night special
LaFleur said he would not call plays Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs so that he could oversee the entire operation of the team before the regular season kicks off.
Normally, the head coach passes the play-calling duties over to an offensive coordinator, but LaFleur said Nathaniel Hackett has plenty of experience calling plays from his days in Jacksonville and Buffalo, and so he decided to let quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy do it.
“It definitely affords you just the ability to sit back and observe everything that’s going around,” LaFleur said. “As a matter of fact, we did that the last two days of practice. I had Hackett or Getsy call the plays in and you really get a good feel of what’s going on and the energy level out there.”
Bearing down on kickers
Gutekunst said he wasn’t overly worried about the Chicago Bears picking up the kicker he cuts and using him against the Packers.
Veteran Mason Crosby has performed well in his competition with free agent Sam Ficken, but Ficken has shown a strong leg and decent accuracy in training camp.
The Bears chose Eddy Pineiro over Elliott Fry in a camp competition, but if someone like Crosby were to come free, it’s hard to imagine them not jumping on him right away.
“I think, learning from (former GM) Ted (Thompson). you've really got to focus on what's best for your team and not worry too much about anything else,” Gutekunst said. “What's the best thing for you? But, yeah, you think about all those things."
Center Corey Linsley returned to practice after a one-day absence. There were no additions to the list of players who have missed practice this week.