CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said going into training camp he told undrafted college free agent wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter II his best shot of making the roster would be as a punt or kick returner.
Lassiter took that to heart and is making the most of his opportunities on special teams early in camp but also trying to stand out as a receiver that can step in and contribute behind the big three of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
Since the spring, Lassiter has gotten some first-team reps while Higgins has been held out of team drills because of offseason shoulder surgery. Lassiter should also get plenty of chances to show what he can offer in the preseason opener against Arizona on Friday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I feel like that’s the plan, to make plays on the punt return and kick return side and then of course at receiver when the ball comes my way, just catch the ball and protect the ball and try to move the chains and score touchdowns,” Lassiter said. “Truthfully, anywhere that they put me I feel comfortable at, so punt return, kick return, if they want to plug me into a spot when one of them boys at receiver is tired, I feel comfortable enough to jump in there and make a play. I just have to keep showing them what I can do.”
Lassiter signed with the Bengals in May as a free agent out of Kansas, where he spent five seasons thanks to an additional year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He emerged as the Jayhawks top receiver in his final two years but also serve as primary punt returner as a sophomore and junior.
Simmons, a Kansas alumnus, joked that Lassiter and Pooka Williams – another Kansas grad – need to step up to help show the Jayhawks produce more than just basketball players. Both are competing for the same roles. Williams has switched from running back in college to a slot receiver and wideout, and he’s also getting looked at on returns, mainly punts.
Special teams roles often determines who takes the final roster spots up for grabs, and Simmons sees the return positions more in flex.
“I told Pooka and I told Kwamie the same thing, the only way you’re going to be on this team is you’re going to be punt returner,” Simmons said. “That’s your only chance to be on the team. We have a lot of receivers in other positions. And so that’s their major role -- they’ve got to be the starting punt returner. And the kick returner role could come with that also, but certainly the punt return, that’s the only way you’re going to be on the team.”
Lassiter knows he still needs to prove capable at receiver, though, and he’s been one of the standout young guys in that position, making multiple catches in recent practices, whether with the first- or second-team offense.
Seventh-year wide receiver Mike Thomas and Stanley Morgan have been playing more often in Higgins’ spot, but Lassiter and Kendric Pryor have both gotten opportunities with the first-team offense.
“Kwamie has been kind of plugged in with the 1s a few times here and there, and he’s really got a good grasp of the offense,” said quarterback Brandon Allen, who has been leading the first-team offense while Joe Burrow continues his recovery from an appendectomy. “For a rookie to be able to get plugged in with some guys that know everything and him to run all the right routes and be on the right page is really good to see.
“I think you can see that confidence as soon as you break the huddle. He knows where to go. He knows what he’s running. I think he’s got a good feel versus what kind of coverage he’s seeing and he’s just got a good feel on the field of just getting himself open. I think he knows that, which allows him to play confidently and get himself open to make plays.”
Lassiter said he is picking up different things from Chase, Boyd and Higgins because they all play a different way but bring good knowledge of the game. Working with them has helped “slow the game down” and make it even more fun.
He especially is looking forward to a chance to get into his first game action in the NFL on Friday, against a team he followed as a kid. Lassiter’s father, with whom he shares a name, spent the first eight of his 10 years in the NFL with the Cardinals. He played safety in the league from 1995 through 2004, and Kwamie Lassiter II was born in Chandler, Ariz., in 1998.
Lassiter said he learned valuable lessons in life and football from his dad, who passed away in 2019, and he especially reflects on those now as he tries to earn a spot on an NFL roster.
“He was undrafted, too, so I was always taught from a kid you got to work to earn a lot of things,” Lassiter said. “So I knew coming in that I was gonna have to work and know all the positions, so if they plug me in at one thing I know I feel comfortable. I’m a pretty confident player, and I play that way. I’m a good route runner, good setting hands, and I feel like I’m good with the ball in my hand, so anyway I can make plays, I want to do it.”
NOTES: Defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Wyatt Hubert and offensive lineman D’Ante Smith did not participate in practice Monday. Hubbard did some work on the side field, but was practicing Sunday. Smith suffered an injury Friday.