Demetric Felton Jr. has come a long way since he attempted his first punt return in a live NFL game.
It happened against the Jaguars last year in the preseason, and Felton, then a rookie sixth-round RB, was still new to the art of the returning punts. Catching footballs that are boomed into the air and come wobbling down at weird angles — all while tacklers run full speed in your direction — wasn't something Felton did in college at UCLA was quite comfortable with yet.
But he knew he had to do it to make the Browns roster and had no choice but to push those fears aside.
"I was definitely scared," he said with a laugh Friday at his locker at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. "I was on a mission to make this team and fit in anywhere I could, so I was willing to do whatever I could to have a role."
The play was smooth — smooth enough for Felton's expectations. He safely caught the ball and made a short 4-yard return, marking the start of his progress in an area the Browns depended on him for most as a rookie. He made 32 punt returns in 2021 and averaged 7.1 yards per return.
A year later, Felton feels much more comfortable when the ball is in the sky. He tallied hundreds of reps over the offseason to work on catching balls, honing his instincts and becoming a flashier runner after the catch, and he's ready to continue that work after he was named the Browns' primary returner for 2022.
"I just wanted the opportunity to build off some of the things I did last year," he said. "Having that opportunity again is huge for me to be able to go out there and help the team."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams first regular season game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday
Felton wasn't supposed to be the Browns' returner to open the season.
That role initially belonged to Jakeem Grant, a Pro Bowl returner a year ago who signed with the Browns this offseason in free agency. A speedy player with four punt return touchdowns in six NFL seasons, Grant was expected to ignite the Browns' special teams after they finished 27th in the league last year with 7.2 yards per punt return and 20th with 20.2 yards per kick return.
During a training camp practice on Aug. 9, Grant was carted off the field after he jumped to catch a pass in one-on-one drills. He suffered a torn Achilles, which ended his season and created a competition for someone to become the Browns' next returner.
Felton was a top candidate for the job after his experience last season, and he sealed the role in the final weeks of the preseason after he proved to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer that his confidence had grown.
"He has some experience under his belt, and he is a year older, a year more mature," Priefer said. "He has seen a lot of football since last year. I think he will be a good option for us there."
Felton focused more on catching balls off a punter's foot rather than from a JUGS machine in offseason practices this year. As a rookie as year ago, the JUGS helped him learn the basics of catching punts — moving to where the ball would land, positioning the feet and getting the arms and chest ready for the catch.
But a ball usually comes out of a JUGS machine one way: straight, with a near-perfect spiral so the ball comes down like a missile. A catch is still tricky for someone with little experience, but it's still not a perfect match for how the ball comes off a punter's foot.
A punter has different types of ways to kick the ball. They can add different spins, create funky bounces and even place a little curve on the trajectory based on the wind and angle the ball booms off the foot.
"There's no telling where that thing goes sometimes," Felton said.
But Felton worked at the craft in practice with the two punters who were with the Browns in training camp, Corey Bojorquez and Joseph Charlton. The Browns picked Bojorquez to be their punter after he displayed a booming leg in training camp, and Felton has caught most of the punts he's hit in practices since they were both named starters.
"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," Priefer said. "Hundreds and hundreds of reps since last year in terms of the spring, training camp and then this past week."
Felton has leaned on Grant for advice, too.
He started asking him questions about how he returned punts as soon as they had their first special teams meetings together in the spring. He saw how Grant approached every inch of returning punts — details about how the ball is caught, and then how it's transferred to be held in the arm. He'd ask Grant to critique his returns in the film room and has kept in touch with him since his injury.
He plans to meet with Grant for more critique from his film in Week 1 in Charlotte.
"He's been extremely important," Felton said. "I'm grateful we've had him on this team, and I'm going to try to do my best to fill that role."
Felton will be the primary kick returner, too, but he didn't have nearly as difficult of a learning curve last year due to his experience at UCLA, where he returned 26 kicks and averaged 23.5 yards per return.
He knows he still has plenty of room for growth there, too, after he totaled nine kick returns and averaged 19.1 yards per return last season with the Browns.
To improve, he's spent hours with Priefer analyzing his kick returns from last year. He's also dug into watching film from legendary returner Devin Hester and, of course, former Browns returner Josh Cribbs.
The one highlight that sticks out most? Cribbs' incredible touchdown return in 2007 against the Steelers, when he manufactured a touchdown on a play where the ball rolled all the way into the end zone before he picked it up.
"I was like, what?" Felton said. "I was just amazed at some of the things he was doing. He made it look so effortless and easy."
Felton has strived to make returns feel the same way for him in 2022, and the Browns need him to feel that way for their return game to take a jump from the low numbers a year ago.
He isn't afraid to be their guy.
"You build up all that fear in your head, but it's just football at the end of the day," he said. "Knowing that has helped me grow more comfortable, and getting all those reps has definitely made me better."