GREEN BAY - On the very first kick return of the 2015 season, which also was the very first kick return of his NFL career, rookie Ty Montgomery galloped 41 yards.
Two months later, on the very first kick return of his NFL career, wide receiver Jeff Janis glided 70 yards to assure himself of a job for the remainder of the year.
The Green Bay Packers enjoyed a season-long rejuvenation in the return game last season after a dismal showing in 2014. On the shoulders of Montgomery and Janis — with additional contributions from Micah Hyde and Jared Abbrederis — the Packers surged from 31st to 11th in average return. Only the Minnesota Vikings had more kickoff returns in excess of 40 yards.
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But the widespread success in one department overshadowed massive disappointment in another: Their kickoff returns were impressive; their punt returns approached abysmal.
Micah Hyde was the central figure on punt returns for the third straight year, and for the first time in his short career, the running lanes seemed to vanish. He averaged 12.3 yards per return in 2013 and found the end zone once. He averaged 15.8 yards per return in 2014 and found the end zone twice. Last season, even with the most attempts of his career, Hyde averaged a lowly 5.8 yards per return. His longest covered just 16 yards.
As a team, the Packers ranked 30th.
“Micah’s got three returns for touchdowns and he is good and he can do it,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “It’s really become a big emphasis for us in the offseason and in camp. Just as was kickoff return last year was a big emphasis. We didn’t have the kind of year that we had previous to last year that we needed to have.”
The belief in Hyde runs strong from Zook to coach Mike McCarthy to the players doing the blocking on each return, and as predicted Hyde has been the primary figure on special teams through the early portion of training camp.
Still, it should be noted that a number of players joined Hyde to practice fielding punts throughout the week. The list includes Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Quinten Rollins and rookie Trevor Davis. That the coaches are pursuing new options is a very real possibility.
“We haven’t changed a lot of scheme but we’ve really fine-tuned the techniques and put a lot more time on it,” Zook said. “A lot of times with the punt return, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not — the punters that you’re going against and so forth (influence that). But we have put a big emphasis into it and it is a phase that we’ve told them that we have got to get a lot better at.
“We’re not making a lot of changes like we did last year. We’re trying to put players in position — our changes are more for the players than scheme or anything like that. If there’s a certain technique that makes it easier for him to execute that technique, we’re trying to do that. Football’s a reaction game. The more times you do the same thing, the less thinking, the faster you play. Hopefully, we can continue to improve.”