GREEN BAY – Maurice Drayton feels at home on special teams.
It's not that the Packers' new special teams coordinator hasn't coached other areas.
In spending nine of his 14 years in the college ranks at his alma mater, The Citadel, Drayton coached at least a half dozen different positions and worked his way up to defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
But he got his start in the NFL five years ago as an assistant on special teams for the Indianapolis Colts, a break that mirrored the roots of his playing career at The Citadel as an undersized walk-on assigned to the punt and kick return teams.
"I'm small in stature by nature and that was a way for me to get on the field," Drayton said earlier this week when he met with the media for the first time since receiving the promotion to special teams coordinator from Head Coach Matt LaFleur.
"I've always been a blue-collar guy, raised by a son of a Marine turned minister in a Methodist church. Mom's an educator, school teacher. So, we've always been blue-collar. To me, special teams is blue-collar."
He has plenty of hard-nosed work ahead to turn around a Packers special-teams unit that bottomed out last season.
The downfall started with a blocked punt and failed onside-kick recovery at Houston in Week 7, and things only got worse.
In the second half of the year, the coverage units allowed two punt returns for touchdowns (vs. Jacksonville and Philadelphia) and a long kickoff return that almost went the distance (at Detroit). Meanwhile, the return game generated no explosive runbacks and lost two fumbles (at Indianapolis and Chicago), and a botched extra point in the playoffs fortunately didn't cost the team.
Drayton partially owns the failures as dismissed coordinator Shawn Mennenga's assistant for the past two years (he's actually held the position the last three seasons for the Packers, initially under Ron Zook in 2018). But he believes new techniques and better teaching methods can begin the rebound.
It's a gamble of sorts by LaFleur to not look outside the organization for a fix, but he stressed when announcing his decision in late January that Drayton was on the path to becoming a coordinator, and he didn't want to lose him.
"I've had a chance to witness him for the last two years and I'll tell you what, he's a teacher," LaFleur said Tuesday. "He's an excellent communicator. Brings great energy to that room, and that's really what I thought was needed, is just his voice leading that room. I've got a lot of confidence in his ability."
To get started, Drayton has been working with assistant Rayna Stewart and game management specialist Connor Lewis to conduct studies of film, league trends and the like to build their playbook.
Already having familiarity with the Packers players will help with the transition, but there will likely be significant personnel turnover.
While General Manager Brian Gutekunst mentioned core special-teamers Ty Summers, Oren Burks and Will Redmond as veteran leaders coming back, he confessed the lack of explosive returns was mostly due to not having a dynamic returner.
The Packers had a strong, though short, run with Tyler Ervin down the stretch in 2019, but his injuries coupled with nobody adequately filling his shoes led to the step back in 2020.
Also, Drayton put two of the three core specialists on notice. Kicker Mason Crosby is coming off a second straight nearly flawless season, but punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley – both 2018 draft picks – saw their inconsistencies continue last season and can probably expect competition in training camp for their jobs.
"They both know that they have to be more consistent in the things that we need them to do to be successful," Drayton said. "They have a prescription that we've written for them to work on.
"They understand that their backs are against the wall."
Drayton won't exactly have a honeymoon period given the time he's already spent in Green Bay. He's already had those pause-and-reflect moments on the practice field, appreciating how a coaching career that has passed through the Arena, European and Canadian football leagues and multiple small colleges found Lambeau Field as a daily backdrop.
It isn't lost on him that he's now a coordinator in the NFL for the first time, too, but the blue-collar background won't let him get distracted.
"At the end of the day, we cannot be mesmerized by that," he said of his rather unlikely journey. "It's time to roll up our sleeves and put the work in."