BEREA, Ohio — When return specialist Jakeem Grant Sr. went down with injury at a training camp practice session this summer, questions began to rise about what the plan would be for the returning game this season. Grant was set to bring an explosive presence to the Browns special teams unit, but he's passed that torch back to Demetric Felton Jr., who has grown in talent and confidence since last season.
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer reflected Thursday about losing Grant to a torn Achilles in August. It was something that without a doubt hurt the team and the plans they had for the season.
"When Jakeem got hurt—it's been several weeks—obviously that stung us a little bit. We were going to rely on him a lot on kickoff and punt. Injuries are a part of football unfortunately. They're an unfortunate part of football. In his case, I think he would have transcended our return game, I really do," Priefer said.
Although the Browns will never know what the return game could have been this year with Grant in the position, they're still confident that it can be a strong part of their team this year. In fact, Priefer announced the plan for the return game before Thursday's practice.
"I think we'll be okay. I think we're going to use Demetric Felton, and he has some experience under his belt," Preifer said. "He's a year older, a year more mature. He's seen a lot of football since last year. I think he'll be a good option for us there.”
Felton had to be a quick learner last year. He had some experience returning kicks in college but not too many reps when it came to punt returning. Felton said that he saw his confidence grow last year alone and is taking that into this season.
"Just confidence and comfortability in the return game. I did kick return in college but I didn’t do much punt returning so getting that last year to really just learn was really good for me," Felton said. "Coach Priefer's really good at making sure everybody gets a lot of reps and just being a really good coach in the film room. So whether it's learning from him, learning from Jakeem, other guys, learning from last year—there's a lot of things that help me be ready for my moment and my opportunity."
Felton and Grant spent a lot of time together this offseason, with Felton taking tips and tricks from the veteran. Those lessons from Grant will likely play a big role in developing Felton into a more explosive returner.
“We would often watch a lot of film of last years plays and Jakeem would do a really good job of just telling me what his mindset might have been in certain plays and just help me, give me little tips and whatever not even when he was healthy, which was awesome for me because I’m always trying to learn," Felton said.
The desire to learn and grow is something that is appreciated by Felton's coaches. Priefer praised his efforts and noted how much work he's done to improve since his first days as a Cleveland Brown.
"He has worked extremely hard in his ball security, tracking punts, catching punts and just the little nuances of where your hands are, your elbows, your feet, your body position and how to track it, get to the spot and move your feet to adjust and those little things. Hundreds and hundreds of reps since last year in terms of the spring, training camp and then this past week," Priefer said. "He's—I don't want to say comfortable because I never want my returner to be comfortable, but I want him to be confident—I think he's much more confident than he was a year ago.”
That confidence is shared by Felton's other coaches on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt had nothing but praise for the versatile player.
“The first thing I would say about Demetric is when you talk about him, you just say he is a football player. The guy can play and makes plays with the football. He has a good skillset as a runner after the catch, as a returner and as a receiver. There are a lot of things he does really well. Just finding ways to enhance his skillset and help him be productive," Van Pelt said. "Real excited about where he's come from a late-round draft pick into a guy who's going to potentially play a lot of snaps for us on offense and on special teams. He's another guy who just comes in and puts the work in and is really very coachable and tries to do everything that we ask him to do.”
With the regular season just days away and Felton set to start as the Browns return specialist, in addition to his role on the offense, the wide receiver/running back/return specialist is just excited for that first kickoff on Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers.
"I'm super excited. It's a great feeling every time you get to play football. So just having all the preparation from the offseaon, into training camp to here, it's just going to be a good time for us to go out there as a team and try to get a win," Felton said.
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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