With the No. 1 kick returner on the depth chart, Will Blackmon, missing some practice time as he continues his road back from an ACL injury in 2009 that sidelined him for most of the season, Jackson has taken increased reps as a kickoff returner thus far in camp. During the Family Night scrimmage on Saturday night at Lambeau Field, Jackson found a seam down the right side on his lone kick return and took it 95 yards for the touchdown.
“He is really starting to come of age as a returner,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He knows exactly what he is trying to do and what we want.”
What the team wants from the kickoff returner is for him to find the hole, hit it as quickly as possible, and shake off tacklers, skills that Jackson brings as a running back.
“The way we have set up our kickoff-return operation, I think it is conducive for a running back to be the perfect body type for that play,” Slocum said. “They are guys that are used to taking hits and maintaining balance and running through crowds. That is the No. 1 thing.”
That is different from what the team asks for from the punt returner, which Slocum said is more about catching the ball, making an initial move to get off the spot and avoid contact, and then use speed in the open field.
Once fully healthy, Blackmon is expected to be the leading candidate for the punt return job, a spot where he has had a lot of success during his career. In just 47 career punt returns, Blackmon has returned three for touchdowns, which ties Desmond Howard for the franchise record. Slocum described the possibility of the Packers utilizing Blackmon at punt returner and Jackson to return kickoffs as a “real scenario.”
Jackson has little experience returning kicks in a game as a pro, with his only two opportunities coming in Cleveland last year in Week 7 when he posted an 18.0-yard average on two returns. He did return 32 kickoffs in college at Nebraska, with more than half of those coming as a true freshman as he returned 17 kickoffs for a 21.1-yard average, good for fifth in the Big 12.
“(You have to have) a downhill mentality,” Jackson said. “You are just trying to beat the tacklers before they get to you.
“There is no second guessing. You’ve just got to hit the hole, hit it full speed, and just set your blockers up.”
With starter Ryan Grant expected to once again carry the load at running back, Jackson is approaching the chance to return kicks the same way he has with the thankless role of third-down pass protector.
“I welcome all challenges,” Jackson said. “Right now it is a challenge for me because I only did it once in the regular season. So this is new to me. I’m just happy to take on a different role.
“That’s what I am about. Just anywhere they need me, just to contribute and do my job.”
Battling it out
One of the highlights that came out of the Family Night scrimmage on Saturday night was the performance of the punters.
Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay, who were making their debuts at Lambeau Field under the lights, each punted five times and posted strong performances in the closest thing to live action that they have seen thus far in training camp.
Both punters were placed in a couple of different situations, including backed up in their own end zone. Bryan, a former Australian Rules Football player making the transition to the American game, registered a 50.4-yard average on his five kicks, while Masthay, a first-year player who spent time with the Colts in training camp last season, recorded a 47.0-yard average on his five opportunities. Both punters posted a long kick of 62 yards.
“I think the Family Night scrimmage clearly shows evidence that we have two talented punters and they have passed their first test of kicking under the lights in a game-type environment,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We put them under pressure from the punt-rush teams throughout the scrimmage and I thought they both performed very well. But our first opportunity to go in a real game will be against Cleveland.
“We’re going to give these guys, hopefully not too many opportunities, it’s kind of a catch-22. We want to make it as equal as possible because these guys have put a lot of time in. They have worked a lot of extra time, both here and away from here, preparing for this opportunity. So I want to max out their opportunity and make sure the Green Bay Packers pick the right punter. They both have earned this chance and I am very excited with where we are today.”
Slocum said he would meet with McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson in the next day or two to determine how the punting and holding reps will be divvied up between Bryan and Masthay on Saturday night in the preseason opener.
Bryan had never held prior to joining the Packers this offseason, while Masthay’s experience holding was limited in college at Kentucky.
“Ideally we would like from a holding standpoint is for a guy to get several in a row with Mason (Crosby) so we can get some continuity built,” Slocum said. “From a punting standpoint, we’ll have a plan going into the games, but it depends on the number of times we punt in a game. So that will be a factor as well.”
The Packers obviously hope to have a strong showing Saturday night from all of their offensive units, which could limit the number of punting opportunities for Bryan and Masthay. In the preseason opener last year, also against Cleveland, the Packers punted only once all game. Just how many chances each punter gets during the preseason plays a part in when the Packers make their decision on a punter, but McCarthy said they are not in a rush to do so.
“If it takes us going to four (preseason games), we will definitely do that,” McCarthy said. “I’m not in any hurry to pick who our punter is for the Philadelphia game.”
Linebacker Brady Poppinga returned to practice for the first time since sustaining a concussion in practice last Thursday night. With linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) out, Poppinga was paired with linebacker Brad Jones as the starting outside linebackers, with linebacker Brandon Chillar working at outside backer with the No. 2 defense.
The injury list remained long with wide receiver Brett Swain (knee), cornerback Josh Bell (foot), safety Will Blackmon (knee), linebackers Frank Zombo (ankle), Alex Joseph (quad) and Nick Barnett (knee), guard/center Jason Spitz (calf), wide receiver Donald Driver (calf), tight end Andrew Quarless (hamstring) and defensive end Ronald Talley (knee) remaining out, along with the three PUP guys — safety Atari Bigby (ankle), cornerback Al Harris (knee) and running back James Starks (hamstring).
Veteran offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher also took the morning off, as has been custom on the days with two workouts. Safety Derrick Martin also remains on the one-a-day schedule, sitting out the morning session.
Aug. 10 - Additional coverage
Young Players Getting Noticed
Mike McCarthy Transcript
Locker Room Audio/Video
Training Camp Blog