GREEN BAY – Ron Zook knows the value of adaptability on special teams. It’s a necessity for any coordinator working with young players and prospects at football’s highest level.
When injuries strike on offense or defense, it’s the third phase that gets pillaged for the next man up. Often, another first- or second-year player must step in to fill the void and keep the special-team units calcified in every phase.
That was Zook’s task during a challenging 2017 campaign in which the Packers cycled through three different long-snappers and a chorus of other contributors. Despite the changes, Green Bay’s special teams managed to stay in sync en route to a respectable 16th-place finish in Rick Gosselin’s annual rankings.
The two areas Zook’s units excelled were punt returns (second in the NFL, 10.7 avg.) and punt coverage, where rookie punter Justin Vogel broke the franchise record for net average (41.6 avg.) en route to being named a Pro Bowl alternate.
“I thought Ron did an excellent job this year,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy at his season-ending news conference last month.
“Frankly of the coordinator positions, Ron has the hardest job. He’s not only young, but in some sense you’re starting over again because of the youth of our team, and how we try to treat starters and just be smart with the play time and some of the reactions that we’ve had to this injury pattern that’s been upon our team the last two years. So I thought Ron Zook did a hell of a job this year.”
Now, the Packers look to take their special teams to the next level in 2018. After Jason Simmons’ recent move to secondary coach, Zook will have a new special-teams assistant in Maurice Drayton, who spent the past two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
Drayton knows special teams because he played special teams for most of his own career. Growing up in Moncks Corner, S.C., the Packers’ new assistant always was the undersized overachiever who worked a minute longer than the rest.
That’s how he got his foot in the door during his first two years at The Citadel before starting his final two seasons at cornerback. Drayton then broke into the coaching ranks with his alma mater before returning in 2014 as defensive coordinator.
“Playing football, I got my start through special teams,” Drayton said. “I fell in love with special teams and it’s kind of brought me where I am today.”
This isn’t Drayton’s first time being in Green Bay, though. He previously assisted the Packers in 2009 as a part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship internship program.
Although his paths never crossed professionally with Zook, Drayton felt an instant connection with the former Florida and Illinois head coach, who joined the Packers’ coaching staff in 2015.
“He’s high energy. I’m high energy,” Drayton said. “Just sitting here right now I’m getting goosebumps thinking about getting our hands on these guys. They’re going to be like putty in our hands. We’re looking forward to molding them.”
While special-team stalwarts Jeff Janis and Demetri Goodson will be unrestricted free agents next month, the Packers return some solid pieces along with Vogel and kicker Mason Crosby.
Safety Marwin Evans played more than 300 snaps on special teams last season, leading the unit with 14 tackles. Defensive back Jermaine Whitehead, signed to the active roster at the end of October, tied for second with six.
“You have to be versatile. You want to have positional variability,” Drayton said. “You have to be able to multi-task at the same time and keep your wits about you when everything around you may be a little out of whack.”
Already settling into his new home in Green Bay, Drayton is excited to get to work in finding the next unheralded player who’ll make an unexpected contribution next season.
“Exactly because I was one of those guys,” Drayton said. “With special teams, you deal with the whole roster, the total roster. A lot of times we get the bottom third of the roster and those are the guys, those blue-collar guys, you get to see them reach their dreams.”