GREEN BAY – It’s been quite a second NFL season for Tremon Smith.
The second-year cornerback/returner started 2019 with Kansas City only to be claimed off waivers by the Packers on Sept. 17. Smith spent three weeks on Green Bay’s roster but was then waived again and brought back on the practice squad.
“Of course, that's not nothing you want to go through,” Smith said. “But I still took the same approach as if I was the starting kick returner, punt returner or even a starter on defense at cornerback, any DB position. Just work day in and day out and just prepare like I'm the guy.”
With the Packers looking to spark their return units, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound speedster was signed back on the 53-man roster this week after rookie receiver/return Darrius Shepherd was released and re-signed to the practice squad.
The Packers haven’t made a formal decision on who will handle kickoffs and punts this Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, but Smith is the most accomplished option on the roster.
A year ago, the former Central Arkansas product was voted to the PFWA All-Rookie Team for his robust 26.8-yard average on 33 kickoffs with Kansas City, including a 97-yard effort against New England last October.
While All-Pro Tyreek Hill handled punt returns in Kansas City, Smith had success in that area with 39 returns for 295 yards and a touchdown (7.6 yards per return) during his final two seasons at Central Arkansas.
“I think he’s got good vision. Runs behind his pads. Got good balance,” special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. “Good acceleration. His top-end speed. He had success with Kansas City last year. He just brings an element that I think can add to us and I’m excited about what he’s going to do.”
Whoever gets the call will be looked upon to bring a spark to the Packers’ return units. Entering Sunday’s game against Los Angeles, Green Bay ranks 30th in kickoff return (17.0-yard avg.) and last in punt return (minus-1.7).
The Packers started instituting changes last week when second-year cornerback Chandon Sullivan handled kickoff returns, which marked the first time Sullivan had been utilized in that capacity since his sophomore year at Georgia State.
Shepherd only returned two punts through the first six games, muffing one and fair-catching 11 others. The Packers’ special-teams units have been up and down in recent years but that has been one area the team has historically fared well.
If his number is called, Smith says he has no problem fielding punts. Despite being on the practice squad the past two weeks, he’s remained in that rotation.
“I've been comfortable at it,” Smith said. “It's something I did in college, high school and throughout my career, so if I so happen to be back there, then that'll be a good thing and I hope to provide the spark special teams needs and wants.”
Smith has noticed how opposing teams have been hitting kickoffs short over the past couple games. It’s in stark contrast to his experience in Kansas City when the opposition rarely kicked to him and Hill willingly.
Smith puts Hill in the same category as Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson as returners who have had a substantial effect on his game.
“I soaked in as much as I could from Tyreek,” Smith said. “He made All-Pro as a returner during his rookie year. The way he sets it up, hits it, sets his blocks up, trusting his teammates.”
Smith says success on returns is predicated on confidence – in both your blockers on the edges and your ability to catch and make the first defender miss.
Mennenga understands what the numbers are and expects his units to be better. He sees progress in the core the Packers are developing on special teams and believes the group is only one or two big returns away from changing the narrative of its season.
“I see the progress in practice and guys are understanding what we’re doing better. It’s just hopefully a matter of time,” Mennenga said. “It just takes one or two good returns and then suddenly your average, it changes that. … It just takes those one or two and I think things will hopefully get on the upswing.”