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Searching For The Right Note


Frank Novak

When special teams coach Frank Novak was asked how it felt to have a healthy Allen Rossum returning punts for the Packers over the last two seasons, he thought of music.

"It was like (being) the piano player for Sinatra," he said. "That was an easy job, wasn't it? You never did a bad song, everything was easy."

Maybe it used to be music, but nowadays the position of punt returner for the Packers is more like musical chairs. With the departures of Rossum and Antonio Freeman, last year's top return men, Novak is now saddled with finding their replacement, and while the options are many, the experience is limited.

Over the past two mini-camps, Novak has tested as many as eight players at punt returner, from those with NFL return experience like Packers fill-ins Darren Sharper, Robert Ferguson and Charles Lee, to return novices like Terry Glenn and Scott Frost, to NFL rookies like Javon Walker, Richard Lewis and Jeremy Unertl.

While the talent pool is deep, trying to determine a go-to punt returner in the no-contact environment of mini-camp is nearly impossible. Any NFL player can stand under a punt knowing an opposing kamikaze isn't screaming down the field looking to lay him out. Still, there's a fair amount of evaluation to be done in mini-camps and Novak grades his players daily.

"You can gauge his acceleration," Novak said. "You can gauge his ball security because we have people try to pull it out. It's not like being tackled though, I realize that, but to a point you have some barometers there that you can look at as indicators and be able to see how productive they have the potential to be.

"And there's a part there that you can't gauge, you can't measure -- it comes from within, it comes from inside of him. There's a will, there's determination and that's what I want to see these guys bring."

Leading the latter category might be Walker, who despite being perhaps the most inexperienced of the punt return candidates has thrilled Novak with not only his work ethic, but his desire to shine with the special teams unit.

"At that position, you're not looking to put round pegs into square holes," Novak said. "He has done a good job and he likes doing it. I love his attitude."

Not to be forgotten and getting his fair share of reps in practice is Lewis. Although no doubt trailing Walker in terms of ability at wide receiver, Lewis shined as a collegiate punt returner in his two years at North Dakota State where he averaged 14.3 yards per return.

But the odds are against him. Buried deep on the Packers depth chart at wide receiver, Lewis would likely have to make the team as a one-dimensional player. Of course, there's no question what dimension the Packers were interested in with they signed the 5-10 Lewis.

"I've been working out at receiver, but that's what they brought me in for, to return punts," Lewis said. "That's what I'm focusing on now . . . If I keep going out there every day and working hard, maybe I'll make a good impression."

Even if it means a roster crunch, Novak isn't ready to close his door on Lewis quite yet. Although a different style of runner than Rossum, Novak said Lewis has an elusiveness that can cause fits for opposing defenses.

"Richard Lewis may be the guy, you don't know," Novak said. "Gosh, he hasn't had a chance to catch one with someone legitimately trying to tackle him and live blockers, so that's what preseason will be all about, at practice as well as the games . . . I'm anxious to see him play, I really am."

For Lewis, each passing day has brought forth confidence that he can succeed at the professional level. After a frustrating April mini-camp in which he admitted to being "tense," Lewis said he's been much more comfortable over the past week.

Novak also noted the change.

"He's getting better," Novak said. "I didn't care for his hands the first week, he struggled with it. A lot of that could have been that it's the first time he's been here, first time he's been within the pros. Obviously (he's) a young guy coming out of a small program, maybe that was part of it, too, but he's doing better now."

Whether it's a one-dimensional player from a small university in North Dakota, like Lewis, or an NFL star with limited experience at the position, like Glenn, Novak said he wouldn't rule out any player to step in as the Packers' top punt return man.

It's all about finding the right man for the job. And when he's been found, it will be music to Novak's ears.

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