CINCINNATI -- It was a little over a year ago that Alex Erickson made his presence felt in the Bengal-land.
Erickson fielded a punt at the 20 in the team’s first exhibition game, broke four tackles and and outran the rest of the Minnesota Vikings' tacklers on his way to an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown.
A star was born... not quite.
But plays like that are necessary for players like Erickson to separate themselves from the pack. Erickson was the longest of long shots to make the team until that return -- an undrafted free agent.
Erickson, 24, is much more a known quantity in this Bengals camp. He finished first in the AFC and second in the NFL in kickoff returns with 27.9-yard average.
The big return against the Vikings gave Erickson an opening, but it didn’t win him a spot.
“What you do every day on that practice field means a lot,” he said. “It gives you an opportunity to go out on the field and make plays. Those are chances. You’re getting evaluated. It’s a chance for them to recognize you can play.”
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons has come to rely on Erickson.
“What you get with Alex is someone who is very consistent,” Simmons said. “He has sneaky elusiveness. But he’s very, very, very consistent. That’s the biggest thing in Alex: You know what you’re going to get day in, day out.
“That’s a very big thing to have in a returner. It’s like a kicker or a punter. You know what you’re going to have when they go out there. That’s a big thing. You know how he’s going to react.”
Erickson doesn’t view this camp much differently than last year’s, i.e, he’s trying to prove he belongs.
“I don’t think that will ever change,” he said. “This league is just so competitive. There are so many talented guys around the league. There’s competition every day -- I know that.”
But now Erickson can concentrate on playing, not learning.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “The competition is the same. But the experience I have now, the understanding of the offense.”
Erickson is used to being the underdog. He was a walk-on at Wisconsin after being a three-sport star at Darlington High, playing quarterback on the football team. He threw for 3,856 yards and 57 touchdowns and rushed fro 3,648 and 37 TDs.
He had a good career at wide receiver at Wisconsin, catching 77 catches fro a 978 yards as senior. Still, he went undrafted, despite running a 4.44 40 on Wisconsin’s pro day.
He showed that speed on the punt return that put him on the roster radar. But he also played well as a wide receiver. He was the team’s second leading receiver in the preseason with 11 catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
But it was his return ability that earned him a spot.
“It’s different for every guy,” Erickson said. “But you’ve got to be able to make plays.”
His rookie year started so-so. He was averaging 20.6 yards on kickoffs and 5.7 on punt returns after seven games. And he had one catch.
Things changed in the second half of the season. He broke off a 65-yard kickoff return against the Washington Redskins in Week 8 and an 84-yarder against the New York Giants in Week 9. He had a 72-yarder in Week 15 against Pittsburgh.
“We got it rolling,” Erickson said. “We have to do it from Game 1 of this year and see what we can do. It’ll be exciting.”
Last season's injury to A.J. Green meant more time down the stretch at wide receiver for Erickson. He had six catches for 51 yards over the last seven games. Not All-Pro numbers, but the experience was something to build upon.
“Every time you’re out there, it’s a chance not only to make plays but to grow and learn from experience,” he said. “That’s the best way we learn -- from experience. Those reps are so valuable.
“You’ve got to make the most of every opportunity.”
So far, Erickson has done that.