Jake Kumerow photo

Wide receiver Jake Kumerow runs to the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of the Packers' win over the Jets on Dec. 23 in East Rutherford, N.J. 

GREEN BAY — Jake Kumerow waited a long time for all the NFL firsts he achieved in 2018.

First real game action. First reception. First touchdown.

Now, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver and UW-Whitewater alum is hoping his season of firsts are just the beginning.

“Maybe I surprised myself a little bit,” Kumerow said in a recent interview on ESPN Wisconsin. “But I always thought I could do that. I’m looking forward to next year.

“I just hope it all works out.”

It certainly all worked out for Kumerow last season, once he finally got the opportunity he’d waited seemingly forever to get.

Last season was technically his fourth in the NFL, but because he’d never played in a regular-season game — he spent two years on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad, followed by a 2017 season that saw him bounce around after being cut by the Bengals, eventually landing on the Packers’ practice squad for the final week of the season — he was technically a first-year player in 2018.

But Kumerow more than earned his shot last season with a strong offseason and training camp, one which caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ attention before a shoulder injury landed Kumerow on injured reserve for much of the year.

While Kumerow would go on to become something of a folk hero among Packers fans because he played at Whitewater, it was Rodgers’ very public praise of Kumerow early on training camp — before many casual observers had even realized he was on the roster — that really ratcheted up the attention.

Rodgers went out of his way to praise Kumerow on Aug. 3, when he was in the middle of an answer about the Packers defense when he pivoted to praising Kumerow, saying he’d had a “fantastic camp” and that “you have to spotlight him” with how he’d played in practice.

“He’s made a ton of plays, did it all spring and summer and now he’s getting reps with me and making a ton of plays,” Rodgers said then. “He’s running the right route all the time and making contested catches and putting the ball away. It’s been pretty impressive for a guy from a small school in Wisconsin.”

While Kumerow wasn’t necessarily lacking confidence, Rodgers’ public praise elevated it to another level.

“That meant a lot,” Kumerow said. “Aaron’s the man. He’s the best to do it. So to hear that come from him, it’s an honor. And I just want to hear it more and more times —  try and keep it up for him, try to keep things rolling. But it meant a lot.

“Honestly, I didn’t go out of my way to connect with him personally. I did everything I could to get him to notice me, though, in the right way — by just putting it on film and studying my plays. And I know he’s the type of guy that notices that stuff. So I didn’t have to do anything out of the ordinary, other than make sure I was where I was supposed to be at the right time. I figured the rest would fall into place if I could just be in the right place at the right time.”

Kumerow rewarded Rodgers for his faith in him by earning first-team reps in practice and then making several eye-catching plays in the preseason, when he caught six passes for 190 yards and a pair of touchdowns — the second of which, a 82-yarder against Pittsburgh, ended with an across-the-goal-line dive that resulted in an injured shoulder that landed him on injured reserve for much of the season.

When he was finally activated for the final four games, Kumerow played 136 snaps and finished with eight receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown — a 49-yarder from Rodgers in the Packers’ Dec. 23 overtime win over the New York Jets.

Kumerow now hopes to parlay that late-season success into a more prominent role in 2019. Veteran receiver Randall Cobb headed to free agency, and the team’s three rookie receivers — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore — had their moments but certainly still have more to prove, especially in a new offense under new coach Matt LaFleur.

Kumerow is an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Packers are the only team that can sign him unless they renounce his rights. Kumerow not only expects to be back, but expressed his excitement to LaFleur during a chance meeting at Lambeau Field shortly after LaFleur got the job.

“I was up at the stadium a couple weeks back, a week or two after the season ended, and I ended up catching Coach LaFleur when he was in there — one of his first days. I was able to shake his hand and just say ‘Hi’ and that I was excited for him to be there,” Kumerow said. “I’m ready to learn a new offense. I did it last year during training camp.”

Kumerow said he plans to work out with his cousins, Joey and Nick Bosa, as he has in past offseasons. Joey, the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, just finished his third season as a defensive end for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Nick is expected to be a top pick in this year’s draft.

But his biggest goal is a simple one — and one he believes will allow him to build on 2018.

“Stay healthy,” Kumerow said. “That’s the big key. If I can stay healthy, I’ll be out there.”

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Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.

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