Returners look to leave their mark on Packers’ special teams

WR Darrius Shepherd and CB Tremon Smith
WR Darrius Shepherd and CB Tremon Smith

GREEN BAY – The Packers’ special-teams units will have a much different look this Sunday against the Denver Broncos following the trade of returner Trevor Davis to Oakland.

Green Bay won’t disclose its specific plans for how it will handle kickoff and punt return duties moving forward, but undrafted rookie Darrius Shepherd and recent waiver claim Tremon Smith likely will get the first extended look.

“Tre’ Smith and Darrius Shepherd will man that position back there,” said special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga on Thursday evening. “We’ve got some young players back there we’re excited about. We’ll see what they can do. They’re young players looking to make their mark in the league. They’re hungry and they’re ready to go.”

Shepherd was the Cinderella story of Packers training camp, going from a tryout player at the team’s rookie minicamp in May to being the only undrafted rookie to make the initial 53.

The former North Dakota State standout has past experience returning both kickoffs and punts, though he excelled at the latter in college with 44 punt returns for 578 yards (13.1-yard average) and a touchdown.

While Davis recovered from a stinger in camp, Shepherd handled most of the Packers’ kickoff and punt returns in the preseason. He averaged 9.2 yards per return on five punts and 22.0 yards on five kickoffs, including a long of 36 against Baltimore.

Shepherd, listed at 5-foot-11, 186 pounds, also has a physical and mental knack for returns. It’s a position he’s played dating back to high school and one he’ll embrace should the Packers call his number Sunday against the Broncos.

“I think it’s a big opportunity,” said Shepherd, who returned to practice last week after missing the first two games with a hamstring injury. “We have a lot to pick up with him being gone because Trevor is a great punt returner, kick returner on this team so we have to really step up our game and do what we can to make up those lost yards.”

Smith, claimed off waivers from Kansas City this week, is a bit more of a proven commodity as a returner. The former sixth-round pick was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team last year after averaging 26.8 yards per return on 33 kickoffs, good for fourth in the NFL among qualifying players.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback, who ran a 4.38 time in the 40 at his Central Arkansas pro day, had his biggest highlight in Week 6 of last season when he ran back a 97-yard kickoff against New England.

“Trusting your teammates and hitting it full speed and trusting that they’re going to have their blocks,” Smith said. “It’s hitting it full speed and running as fast as possible, and you can’t be scared, either. You can’t run scared; that’s when you get hit hard.”

Smith wasn’t asked to return punts in Kansas City due to the presence of All-Pro Tyreek Hill but averaged 7.6 yards on 39 punt returns at Central Arkansas, bringing one back for a touchdown during his junior campaign in 2016.

He also figures to play a part on the Packers’ coverage units after seeing action as a gunner in punt coverage with Kansas City in the past.

The past week has been a wild ride for Smith, who played 16 snaps on special teams in Kansas City’s 40-26 win over Jacksonville in Week 1 before receiving his release.

The transition to Green Bay has been relatively seamless given the similarities between Mennenga’s scheme and what the Chiefs run under longtime coordinator Dave Toub.

“It’s a good feeling to come to a great organization like this with so much history behind it,” Smith said. “Kansas City’s in my past now. Now it’s all about the Green Bay Packers.”

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Mennenga thanked Davis for his contributions and wished him well in Oakland but also said he likes the options the Packers have to fill the vacancy on returns.

Beyond Smith and Shepherd, cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson returned punts last year, while running back Jamaal Williams has past experience on kickoffs.

Mennenga is keeping an open mind about the return game. He’s willing to run with one sole returner or split the duties if that’s what makes the most sense for the team.

Right now, his focus is on getting Smith up to speed and allowing Shepherd to get back into the swing of things on special teams after his two-week absence.

“I’m excited to see what they can do. I think they each have their strengths and things we’re going to try to accentuate,” Mennenga said. “It’s been a busy 24 hours but coming from Kansas City, we’re kind of in the same family of special teams. … (Smith) is probably going to be able to hit the ground a little bit faster than coming from somewhere else.

“Obviously, Darrius and those guys have been here. It’s been busy but again that’s the nature of the job. Those guys will be ready to go because they’re good pros and they’re hungry.”

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