Rookie Hyde in mix to return punts for Pack

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Micah Hyde swears he took a few turns as a punt returner early in training camp this summer.

“You guys must have missed it,” the Green Bay Packers rookie cornerback said to a group of reporters, “because I was catching punts. It wasn’t every day, but I definitely, before I was doing some gunner work and stuff like that, I was catching some punts. Maybe I was sneaky with it.”

Those who looked closely would have seen that all along, Hyde was listed on the depth chart as the No. 4 punt returner. But if he took any actual reps the first three weeks of camp, it wasn’t more than a few. That’s why it was a surprise to see Hyde get his first shot to return a punt late in the second quarter of Saturday’s preseason game at St. Louis. And it was equally surprising to see Hyde, with little training on special teams, catch the ball cleanly and do exactly what special-teams coach Shawn Slocum wants his returners to do. Hyde planted his foot and headed up the field without hesitation to pick up 13 yards -- the longest punt return by a Packers player so far this season.

“I thought his punt return the other night, he got off the spot really quickly,” Slocum said.

As well as Hyde has played on defense this preseason, there might soon come a time when the Packers are at full strength in the secondary and will have to reduce his role. For now, the fifth-round pick is playing starters’ snaps at cornerback. But at some point relatively soon, starter Tramon Williams will return from the knee injury he sustained early in camp and nickel back Casey Hayward will be full go after returning this week from a hamstring injury.

Perhaps that’s why the Packers are exploring other ways to get Hyde on the field.

Although Hyde served as the University of Iowa’s primary punt returner the past two seasons (averaging 7.4 yards as a senior and 8.2 as a junior), the Packers did not use him on returns much during offseason workouts or early in camp. He opened training camp behind Randall Cobb, Jeremy Ross and rookie running back Johnathan Franklin on the depth chart at punt returner.

Coach Mike McCarthy has said repeatedly that he’s willing to take Cobb off return duty but only if he finds someone with the same kind of play-making ability and sure-handedness with the ball. Ross has shown signs of that, but there’s no guarantee he will make the roster as a receiver, and Franklin appears too shaky catching the ball to be strongly considered.

So McCarthy went back to something he remembered about Hyde from the rookie orientation camp in May.

“If you remember the one drill we were doing, we had 21 guys going through the kickoff-return and punt-return drill and (were) really challenging them with the ball placement,” McCarthy recalled. “Just to see (Hyde’s) ability to catch the ball on the run and do different things, hell, I was tempted to put him on offense. I think he has that type of ball-skill ability.”

One 13-yard return won’t convince the Packers to go with Hyde, but they have given him increased work during special-teams period in practice this week. With Cobb sidelined because of a biceps injury, Slocum also is exploring other options at kickoff returner. On Tuesday, running back DuJuan Harris returned kickoffs for the first time.

“We’ve made no decisions at this point, and I think from an outsider looking in you can see us trying a number of guys, and you can form your own opinions,” Slocum said. “But we’ve made no decisions.”