Return duty may be way to roster
“Colin Kaepernick is the Lord Voldemort of the NFL. He is the quarterback who must not be named … as a potential starter or even a backup, anywhere in a league.”
Isaiah McKenzie shot his right arm into the air and peered toward the clouds as a football was fired out of a machine 50 yards in front of him.
The ball barreled through the air as McKenzie drifted under it. He shifted under the ball’s shadow until it smacked his pads with a thud, then gripped the ball tightly between his arms and burst up the field.
Chris Gould, the Broncos assistant special teams coach, saw McKenzie fielding one punt after another following the team’s practice Wednesday and offered a tweak. He showed McKenzie how to catch the ball directly in the center of his chest — as opposed to fielding it on one side of his body or the other — which would allow him to more quickly cut up the field.
So McKenzie adjusted and kept flinging his arm into the air, asking for another ball to be launched.
“All the coaches talk about the finer details,” McKenzie said. “I’m starting to see that all the coaches like details. It’s the small things that can make the big things happen.”
McKenzie should know. The 5foot-8, 173-pound rookie, a fifthround pick out of Georgia, is the second-lightest player listed on the training camp roster behind Kalif Raymond (5-9, 160). Only
fellow rookie De’Angelo Henderson, a 5-7 running back, is shorter than McKenzie. But McKenzie’s chance to make the team rests on a big-play ability on special teams the Broncos have longed for the past few seasons.
In three seasons at Georgia, McKenzie returned five punts for touchdowns, a school record aided by the speed that allowed him to clock a 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine of 4.42 seconds.
Those numbers were appealing to the Broncos, who have had just one punt returned for a touchdown in the past three seasons and were 15th in average punt return yardage (8.5) last season.
Uncertainty exists at nearly every level of the Broncos’ offense through nearly two weeks of training camp. At quarterback, offensive line, tight end, running back and wide receiver, battles wage on.
But one thing is certain: the unit would greatly benefit from improved starting field position in 2017. That makes McKenzie an intriguing player to watch.
“I’ll tell you where it starts, it’s with the confidence,” special teams coach Brock Olivo said of McKenzie. “He wants the ball in his hands and he likes the fact that there is a (Kansas City wide receiver) Tyreek Hill in our division, a guy that he can strive to be as good as or better someday. I know he’s thinking that in his head because he’s very confident and I love that about him.”
Hill, himself a fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft, was among the most electric players, let alone rookies, in the league last season. He scored a combined 12 touchdowns and had at least one score via reception (6), rush (3), punt return (2) and kick return (1).
Olivo sees some similarities in the two players.
“You see that, the quickness, the lateral movement, the burst, the toughness to stand in there,” Olivo said. “Again, we’ll see coming up in the first preseason game and throughout preseason just how much guts the kid has when gunners are running down in front of his face.”
McKenzie doesn’t want his contribution be limited to returning punts. Before he made his way in front of the punt machine Wednesday, McKenzie spent more than 20 minutes after practice running extra passing routes.
“Being small you have to play big,” McKenzie said. “I come out here with the mindset that I can do anything a 6-5 guy can do. I can do anything any other guy can do. With my speed, I may not be tall enough, but I know I can jump and catch the ball.”
Broncos receiver Isaiah McKenzie returned five punts for touchdowns during his college career at Georgia.