Like several other positions for the Packers, the battle for the kickoff return duties in 2008 will likely include plenty of competition during the preseason later this summer.
That group will be comprised of several players returning from last year's team, headlined by incumbent Tramon Williams, as well as a couple of newcomers to the roster.
During Wednesday's OTA practice at The Don Hutson Center, Williams and rookie wide receiver Jordy Nelson were the returners on the first unit of the kickoff return team. Running backs Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency and DeShawn Wynn, along with a pair of rookies in wide receiver Brett Swain and running back Kregg Lumpkin, also received reps returning kicks. Cornerback Will Blackmon, who is currently not participating in practices as he recovers from a foot injury, will also likely be in the mix come training camp.
"We've got so many young guys, so it is really going to be exciting for us," special teams coordinator Mike Stock said. "We are looking forward to the preseason and certainly when we can finally get the pads on and see what these guys can do under the real pressure of a game."
At this point in the offseason, most of the work that the team is putting in on kickoff returns is focused on basic techniques and fundamentals.
"We want them to square up with the ball, anticipate the catch, and move forward in a controlled manner so they are moving forward on the catch and they can go ahead and take that ball up the field behind the wedge," Stock said. "It is just the basic fundamentals of catching and delivering themselves up behind the wedge and finding daylight."
Williams, a relative unknown who parlayed a strong 2007 preseason into a roster spot, shared the kickoff return duties last year with veteran wide receiver Koren Robinson. Williams went on to lead the team with 30 kickoff returns for 684 yards, a 22.8-yard average that included a career-long 65-yard return vs. Chicago and a 49-yarder vs. the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game that helped set up a Donald Lee touchdown catch.
"We're working more with trying to get Tramon more familiar with the blocking scheme so his vision will improve a little bit," Stock said. "But he sees daylight and he's able to make cuts and move up the field pretty quickly. He's very fast, very explosive, has got a great first step, and he just needs more experience doing the things he does."
Robinson was released by the team in early May, so for Williams, the year of experience he gained in '07 will be a big plus as he leads this year's group.
"At one point I didn't think experience mattered that much, but I came in this year a lot more relaxed," Williams said. "I feel like the defense and special teams are second nature to me now, and I'm just ready to go out and play. I just can let my ability take over and I know the coaches have confidence in me that I can do that."
Stock said the Packers will primarily work with two players back deep on kickoff returns, so the importance of other players besides Williams emerging is increased.
"One safety is going to be the call guy and he is going to make all of the calls, unless it is way on the other side of the field," Stock said. "Last year for the most part it was Williams. He'll make the call and if he can get it, he'll get the ball and the other guy will be the lead blocker. If Tramon doesn't get it, whoever the other guy is, he'll make the call that his partner takes the ball, and Tramon will lead block and take his place in that situation."
Stock added that with injuries and the uncertainty of how much players are involved on offense or defense in a given game, depth becomes a focus.
"Normally for a game you've got to have four or five guys just in case somebody gets nicked or needs a rest or whatever during the course of the game," Stock said. "You're always looking for four or five people on your football team to make it and dress, that are able to play for you on Sunday and help you in that capacity."
One of the candidates for the other spot is Nelson, the Packers' top pick in the 2008 draft as a second-round selection out of Kansas State. He did not return any kickoffs during his collegiate career, but showed his big-play capabilities as a punt returner last season for the Wildcats.
Despite only returning five punts last season, Nelson earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors from the league's coaches. He posted a gaudy 52.8-yard return average by returning two of five punts for touchdowns, a 92-yarder for a score vs. Baylor and an 89-yard touchdown at Texas.
"I definitely would like to do it (return kicks)," Nelson said. "It's just another way to help out the team, and I would be able to get out on the field and play. Kickoff return is not maybe as wide open as a punt return might be, but for the most part it's just reading the blocks and going where you are supposed to go."
Jackson, a second-round pick in 2007, began to show some of his playmaking ability late in the year. He posted 113 yards on 20 carries in the season finale vs. Detroit, and also recorded 34 yards on eight rushes along with a 13-yard touchdown catch in the Divisional playoff against the Seahawks.
"Brandon returned kicks a little bit at Nebraska, and he really exploded offensively late in the season last year after going through some trial and errors early in the season," Stock said. "This year I think he's going to show even more progress in what he is able to do for us offensively and in the kick return game. I am hoping that he is going to be a factor.
"All of these guys here have had some good experience and hopefully we'll get two good ones out of that group when we are ready to play the season."