Troy Brown returned a franchise-record 252 punts during his 15 seasons with the New England Patriots.
Now, he’s is using that expertise to groom the franchise’s latest punt-return standout.
Brown, a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, currently serves as New England’s kick returners coach. His star pupil is second-year pro Gunner Olszewski, who’s in the midst of a breakout.
Wearing Brown’s old No. 80, Olszewski has notched three 50-plus-yard punt returns in the Patriots’ last three games. He found the end zone on two of them — a 70-yard touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers and an 82-yard score against the Arizona Cardinals that was wiped away by a penalty.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday in a video conference, Olszewski said Brown’s teachings have been vital to his recent success.
“He’s back there with me every step of the way,” the 24-year-old said. “In practice and even in pregame. Every punt I catch, Troy’s standing right behind me saying all the things he’s been saying since training camp. ‘Get under the ball. Look it all the way in. Tuck it away.’ All these things. So when I go back there in a game, my eyes are on Troy. He gives me a call, and then when I line up, I can still kind of hear his voice when that ball gets punted in the air — ‘get under it, look at all the way in.’
“It’s the small things that really make those big returns happen; you can’t start until you catch it. So he’s been a huge help, and having somebody like that that I can just go talk to is obviously huge. Every step of the way — practice, games, pregame. Yeah, he’s the man.”
Olszewski’s performance against the Chargers earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the first time in his young career. He does not have enough returns to qualify as one of the NFL’s league leaders after missing the start of the season with an injury, but his 20.6 yards-per-return average on 14 runbacks is second-best among all players who has returned even a single punt this season. (Philadelphia’s Jalen Reagor, who has just three returns, is first at 26.3.)
A total of 56 players have returned at least 10 punts since the start of the 2019 season, and Olszewski ranks second among them in yards per return (13.8 on 34 attempts). He trails only Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines, who’s averaged an even 15.0 yards on 31 returns.
The Patriots as a team lead the NFL in punt-return average at 17.6 yards per return, a full 4 yards ahead of the second-place Denver Broncos (13.5).
Despite this production, Brown hasn’t changed the way he coaches the former Bemidji State star.
“We’ve been doing a good job,” Olszewski said, “and one of the things I appreciate from Troy really is, like (Wednesday) during practice, I dropped a punt and I took a lap, just like I did in training camp and just like I did as a rookie before I even caught a punt. Now I’ve had some success, and him still making me do something like that, I respect it. It keeps me going the way that I want to go.
“Stuff like that, that’s the kind of guy Troy is.”
Olszewski also returned kickoffs for much of the season before ceding those duties to wide receiver Donte Moncrief in Week 12. That proved to be a wise move, as Moncrief, who had little prior NFL return experience, ripped off a 53-yard kick return in his Patriots debut.
In addition to tutoring players like Olszewski and Moncrief, Brown also serves as New England’s assistant running backs coach, working under longtime position coach Ivan Fears.