Chery had yet to return a punt or a kick this preseason, but when the player who was supposed to go out to field a punt late in the fourth quarter was too winded to take the return, Chery pleaded with special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum on the sideline to give him an opportunity.
“I was at corner on punt return and it was our turn to come in, the second group,” Chery said. “I saw one of our receivers that was doing the punt return was a little winded, and it was his turn to go up. So I told Coach that, ‘He’s winded. Give me a chance because I am right behind him. Give me a chance and put me back there.’
“He said, ‘OK, we’re going to give him a chance,' but he wasn’t sure if he should put me in there because he didn’t know what I could do yet. So I said, ‘Give me a chance.’ I told the other coach to pull for me, tell him to give me a chance, and they finally gave me a chance.”
After making one Colts tackler miss at the Green Bay 25, Chery took the ball down the middle of the field, largely untouched, before outrunning a group of Colts for the 75-yard touchdown. The first-year receiver out of Louisiana-Lafayette, one of the most recent additions to Green Bay’s roster, became the first Packer to return a punt for a score in a preseason game since Desmond Howard vs. Pittsburgh on Aug. 11, 1996.
“I was on the sidelines just waiting, stretching, waiting for a chance,” Chery said. “By the time I finally went out there, everybody was on me. The whole team was rooting for me, saying, ‘Catch the ball, make sure you catch the ball, be calm,' this and that.
“I am already nervous, my adrenaline is pumping, my eyes are red because I was emotional. I was like, ‘Finally, it’s about time.’ Then I said, ‘OK, catch the ball.’ So I caught the ball, now what am I going to do? I just caught the ball and made one move because Coach says just make one move and hit it. I did exactly what they told me to do and I hit it and I let my abilities work for themselves.”
Chery won’t have to argue his case this week, as Head Coach Mike McCarthy announced on Monday that the first-year wideout will handle all of the return duties, both punts and kicks, in the preseason finale on Thursday night at Kansas City. Will Blackmon, No. 1 on the depth chart at both return positions, has been sidelined since last Thursday night's game as he works his way back from a significant knee injury sustained last season.
“You can’t not be excited about his punt return in the Indianapolis game,” McCarthy said. “The young man hasn’t been given a whole lot of opportunities in the game, so we’re going to find out.
“He has tremendous speed. There’s no question about that. He plays with it in the return game, you can see that just in his time out here on the practice field and also in the game. But that’s a tough situation to come into a multiple offensive scheme, come from somewhere where there’s not a whole lot of carry-over terminology-wise. So it’s been a tough transition for him from a playbook standpoint in the passing game and with our offense. But he’s going to have a big opportunity here on special teams Thursday.”
Chery signed with the Packers six days into training camp, joining the team on Aug. 5 to take the roster spot of rookie wide receiver Jeff Moturi, who had been placed on injured reserve due to a knee injury. McCarthy said Chery was timed between 4.29 and 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash during his workout, and he showed that speed in just his second practice when he got behind Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson deep down the sideline. The problem was he dropped the perfectly thrown ball from Matt Flynn.
“I was nervous coming in just because they already had other guys there and I had to do a catch-up, coming from not even being here for OTAs, just coming to training camp and learning the whole playbook over,” Chery said. “I was a little afraid of not knowing the plays as fast as I could, but I pushed myself and everything worked for the best. I thought it would be hard.
“At first I was thinking negative, but once I started studying and studying and pushing myself, it got easier and I learned the plays. The guys really, really helped me. (Donald) Driver and (Greg) Jennings and James (Jones), they all helped me and are pulling for me. If I have a question, I just go ask them, so they make sure that I am not left behind. I am right there with them.”
Chery, who started his college career as a running back, signed with Carolina as a non-drafted free agent in the spring of 2009, but was released in the final roster cutdown. He caught four passes for 53 yards in the preseason, including a 31-yard touchdown catch in the opener at the New York Giants. Chery did spend a little over a month on the Panthers’ practice squad early in the season, and also was on the Steelers’ practice squad toward the end of the year.
Chery returned punts and kicks during his college career, but was primarily a kickoff returner late in his career once he became a primary receiver. While he said he is finally feeling more comfortable with the Packers’ offensive playbook, he knows that special teams, both as a return man and in coverage, will be his ticket to earning a spot on the final roster.
“When I signed here, to me the best chance of making it was on special teams because they have four solid guys on offense,” Chery said. “So I was just like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go ahead and show what I can do on special teams.’ Whatever it is, gunner, kickoff returner, blocking, whatever I have to do to make the team because I don’t want to go home.
“In college, that’s how I got my start. I didn’t redshirt my freshman year, but I showed what I could do on special teams. It was hard for me to do the transition from running back to receiver, so I was struggling. But I did so good on special teams so it gave me a way to stay on the team and not get redshirted. Special teams was my key for moving forward, and it still is the key for me.”
For so many young players trying to make the team, just getting an opportunity to show what they can do is half the battle. In Chery’s case, one play has opened that door.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Chery said. “It’s one of my dreams to finally get a chance to play against the best of the best. Of course the whole family will be watching. It’s just another obstacle that I am going to have to leap, but it’s a great opportunity.
“At the same time I want to show them that it wasn’t a fluke. I’ve got to keep working on my mechanics and do it again. Even if I don’t score, I can still show them a case of what I can do with the ball in my hands.”
With the No. 1 offense expected to see very limited action in the preseason finale at Kansas City on Thursday night, Flynn could get as much playing time as he has in any other game during his three-year career in Green Bay.
In 2008, Flynn worked as the No. 3 quarterback throughout training camp behind fellow ’08 draft pick Brian Brohm, and then saw very limited time last year as the backup to Aaron Rodgers in the preseason because of a shoulder injury he sustained in the second preseason contest. In the preseason finale last year at Tennessee, Brohm handled the signal-calling duties for every series but one since Flynn was still injured.
“This is definitely a big week and a week that all of the 2’s look forward to,” Flynn said. “We’re going to get more reps than we have all camp and in any of the games, so it is something to look forward to. We’re going to have a lot of fun and hopefully go out there and execute and put up some points.”
Flynn posted his best performance of the preseason last Thursday against Indianapolis when he completed 8-of-13 passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions for a 118.6 rating. He led the No. 2 offense on two touchdown drives with another drive good for 61 yards that ended with a Mason Crosby 28-yard field goal.
“I feel like all preseason we have been moving the ball well, but we have kind of shot ourselves in the foot a few times,” Flynn said. “But we finally took that next step and got into the end zone. That was good for my confidence and the confidence of the guys around me going into this week.”
Flynn said he focused on improving his footwork and arm strength this offseason, but his comfort level with the offense has helped him more than anything.
“Each year I feel like I have developed more and more,” Flynn said. “I can look back at this training camp and say I have developed a little more each week. I feel good about it and I just want to take the next step this week and play well.”
Tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip flexor), tackle Chad Clifton (knee) and defensive end Jarius Wynn (concussion) all returned to practice on Monday as the Packers worked in shells.
Linebacker Brad Jones (harness) also returned, but in a more limited capacity. McCarthy said he wanted to give Jones a little bit of work with a harness he will likely have to wear for a while, and he will be re-evaluated on Tuesday.
Clifton sat out many of the team reps, so his snaps were taken by Bulaga and T.J. Lang.
Linebackers Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop and defensive end Cullen Jenkins went through the opening jog-through portion of practice but then sat out after that.
Blackmon (knee), cornerback Brandon Underwood (shoulder), running back Quinn Porter (knee), tackle/guard Allen Barbre (back) and the three PUP players – safety Atari Bigby (ankle), cornerback Al Harris (knee) and running back James Starks (hamstring) did not practice.
McCarthy said Blackmon's surgically repaired knee is not “responding the way he would like right now.”
McCarthy said Underwood was doing better, but that the medical staff was still trying to determine if the injury was an existing one or a new issue. Underwood had surgery on his shoulder as a redshirt freshman at Ohio State. McCarthy said the team would monitor Underwood and see how he gets through the weekend. Additional coverage - Aug. 30