GREEN BAY - Trevor Davis and Ron Zook had their routine down to a science last season, arriving early and catching one kickoff and punt after another until practice began.
There was a point to the process. The Packers’ speedy young returner intended to not drop a single ball during the season.
By mid-October, the former fifth-round pick out of California had emerged as both Green Bay’s kickoff and punt returner. Along with averaging a respectable 22.8 yards on 31 kickoffs, Davis finished second among all NFL punt returners with an average of 12.0 yards on 24 attempts.
Davis propelled the Packers to second in the NFL in team punt-return average (10.7), the highest Green Bay has finished in the category since Desmond Howard vaulted the 1996 Packers to the top of the league during the team’s Super Bowl XXXI run.
Individually, Davis is one of only three players to rank in the top 10 in both punt-return average (12.2, second) and kickoff-return average (22.7, ninth) since 2016, along with Pharoh Cooper and Andre Roberts.
That production has the 6-foot-1, 188-pound receiver back in the driver’s seat on returns heading into his third NFL season.
“It was just being consistent. It’s the same thing you do at receiver or any position,” said Davis, who didn’t fumble any of his 55 return chances in 2017. “A lot of guys I’ve watched catch the ball and they kind of hesitate or wait for a lane. I like to go ahead and burst out and get the quick 10 or 12 (yards) I have in separation already, because it’s not guaranteed if you hesitate that you’re going to get those yards.
“The main thing is getting those yards fast and try to get a first down right there, right away, rather than going for the big one every single time.”
One of the unsung factors Davis credits for his returning success was the 10 guys helping him set up blocks, a sentiment Head Coach Mike McCarthy echoed this offseason when asked about the special-teams unit’s production last season.
During his season-ending news conference, McCarthy praised Zook for helping keep the Packers’ special teams shored up despite a litany of injuries that created a week-to-week carousel of players moving in and out of the lineup.
“I think if you look at the statistics with Trevor on returns, there’s some great things,” McCarthy said. “Really looking for him to build off of that. The other part of it, too, is our coverage teams have really improved, and I think people noticed that, but also our ability to block and set things up we feel we improved in that area.”
This offseason, Zook’s special teams were thrown another curveball with the NFL’s changes to kickoff returns to improve player safety. The biggest alteration - the elimination of a running head start for coverage players - has every NFL team trying to predict what strategy coordinators across the league will employ once the season begins.
The Packers are anticipating kickoff-return opportunities will increase with the extra seconds it will take would-be tacklers to get downfield. Zook’s message to Davis and others has been to control what the Packers control and be ready for anything.
“You have to feel it out and see how teams are going to kick and see what they’re going to do,” Davis said. “It’s going to come down to preseason and see what people want to do. Or they might hide it and do what they really want to do during the season. Those first few weeks are really going to show what teams are thinking the best strategy is to go about that.”
Competition throughout the ranks on special teams helped the Packers jump to 16th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings last year, and Green Bay again hopes that formula will push the unit forward in 2018.
That includes on returns, where Davis knows he faces stiff competition this summer. While Davis was nursing a hamstring injury this spring, Ty Montgomery, Quinten Rollins and rookie first-round pick Jaire Alexander rotated catching kickoffs and punts in practice. Veterans Randall Cobb and Tramon Williams also possess extensive return experience in a pinch.
“Trevor was second in the National Football League last year, so he’s shown that he can do it and do a good job,” Zook said. “I know that’s one of the things Coach wanted - he wants competition. I think at any position, the more competition you have, the better you’re going to be and I think we’ll have some competition back there.”