GREEN BAY, Wis. — The loss of Randall Cobb for at least eight weeks is a significant loss for the Green Bay Packers’ offense. On punt returns, however, Cobb’s absence might not be felt much, at least based on the glowing praise that coach Mike McCarthy gave rookie Micah Hyde.
Hyde had been splitting punt-return duties with Cobb situationally in recent weeks after the Packers released Jeremy Ross early in the season. But with Cobb on injured reserve with the designation to return in Week 15, it’s all up to Hyde now, and that’s perfectly fine with McCarthy.
“Micah Hyde, from Day 1, I think he’s about as natural of a returner as far as handling the football that I’ve seen coming out of college,” McCarthy said Thursday. “Charles Woodson is probably one of the best players that I’ve been around as far as handling the football on punts. Just very natural to him, and Micah is similar that way, so he just needs more opportunities.”
Woodson returned punts in his first two seasons with Green Bay; 2005 and 2006. He never averaged more than 9 yards per return, but Woodson was sure-handed and rarely made a mistake. Hyde wasn’t interested in being Woodson 2.0, though.
“I don’t see myself as that,” Hyde said as he tried to hold back a smile after hearing McCarthy’s compliment. “I’m just back there trying to catch the ball and make sure that A-Rod (Aaron Rodgers) can go out there and throw touchdowns after that. That’s it.”
Hyde isn’t getting this chance simply because he’s next in line after Cobb and Ross; he earned it with his performance in Green Bay’s Week 6 win over Baltimore. In Hyde’s five punt returns, he gained 68 yards while showing improvement as the game went on. Hyde started off that game with a two-yard return, improved to seven yards on his second attempt and then reeled off 23 yards, 20 yards and 16 yards on his final three punt returns.
“I thought he did a very nice job against Baltimore,” McCarty said. “It’s getting comfortable handling the ball, comfortable with our return scheme. I thought he did a nice job.”
Hyde might be natural in punt return now, but it took him a lot of work. In college at the University of Iowa, Hyde began as the team’s punt returner in his junior season, and it wasn’t always pretty.
“I think my junior year, I wouldn’t say I struggled, but it was new,” Hyde said. “Of course I caught them in practice, but it’s different in a game. It’s way different in a game. I think my junior year of college it was a struggle. But now I just try to be as comfortable as possible catching them.”
Hyde averaged 10.5 yards on 11 punt returns as a junior and averaged 9.4 yards on 13 punt returns as a senior.
Other than the game against the Ravens, Hyde returned two punts a week earlier and had little success with seven total yards. Now that he’s not splitting time with Cobb, perhaps it will benefit Hyde to have some consistency with his role. Before, Hyde didn’t know whether he was up until special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum called his name just as the players took the field for the punt return.
“At that time, when coach was doing that, I honestly didn’t know if i was going in for that next punt return or not,” Hyde said. “I just had that mindset if he calls my name, just try to go out there and make a play.”
Hyde doesn’t have the prototypical speed of a breakaway punt returner. One reason he fell down to the fifth round of this year’s draft was his lack of speed, by NFL cornerback standards.
“Micah’s fast enough,” Slocum said. “One of the things that he’s done as we started the season with the couple times that he was indecisive, it made it look like he wasn’t running out of there. He’s got plenty of speed.”
Hyde agreed, dismissing his 4.56 40-yard dash time from before the draft.
“I just think when I get on the field, it’s totally different,” Hyde said. “It’s not me lining up in front of people on TV to run the 40. That’s something that I didn’t prepare for my whole life. I prepared for playing football and making plays on the football field. That’s all that I think I can do. That whole experience was fun and it was fine, but it’s over and right now for the rest of my career it won’t matter.
“I’m just here trying to run as fast as I can on the field to run away from these defenders.”
Hyde won’t outrun an entire special teams group for a touchdown, but after the Packers’ experiment with the speedy Ross failed due to repeated mental mistakes and fumbles, this is a path that Green Bay is happy to take.
According to Slocum, Hyde’s strengths come in anticipation of the ball’s flight and the ability to respond quickly to it and get himself into proper position.
Hyde can’t just worry about punt return. He played 41 defensive snaps in Week 6 and has re-established himself as the Packers’ nickel back. He played well on defense too, finishing with one sack, one forced fumble and seven tackles.
There’s no concern from Hyde about a dual role, as the 22-year-old feels ready for the increased playing time.
“I’m used to it,” Hyde said. “I can go out there and play some plays and get some rest the next day.”