GTK: Banjo striking right chord with Packers

Aug. 16, 2013

The splash the Green Bay Packers seemed destined to make at safety never happened this offseason.

Instead of plucking a prospect from a draft class brimming with star potential, the Packers decided to stand pat with M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and a chorus of undrafted players vying to work alongside budding star Morgan Burnett.

The moves – or lack thereof – didn’t exactly inspire confidence considering the organization has entered the season with either Pro Bowlers like Nick Collins or Charles Woodson manning that spot for the past eight years.

However, that approach does lend itself to unearthing gems like Chris Banjo, an undrafted 5-foot-10, 207-pound safety out of Southern Methodist who isn’t afraid to compete.

The stocky 23-year-old went to rookie orientation with Pittsburgh and Oakland in 2012, but never signed a deal until the Jacksonville Jaguars discovered him at a regional combine and inked him to a contract this past April.

Before the start of training camp, however, the Jaguars decided to go another direction and released him. Similar to the path second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin took from Jacksonville to Green Bay last year, the Packers signed Banjo up three days later on July 29.

A little more than two weeks later, the undersized but overlooked safety is showing there’s some serious talent to his game. He picked off Vince Young to close a team drill on Thursday and hit like a snowball against a street sign during padded practices.

So when asked on Thursday what Mike McCarthy’s level of concern was with the uncertain green hue of his safeties room, you’ll have to forgive the Packers coach if he doesn’t see it as such.

Yes, Jennings and McMillian are another year wiser, but there’s also a guy named Banjo who’s striking a chord inside the organization.

“Let’s be honest, Banjo comes in here and I love the way he played,” McCarthy said. “He was one of the guys we recognized in our team meeting. The safeties are a lot like the whole defense – we’ve got a lot of good depth over there.”

Being undrafted and out of football for a year doesn’t help your cause for making a roster at the end of August, but it’s not impossible, either. Last year, former University of Pennsylvania tackle Greg Van Roten signed to the 90-man roster a day before the start of training camp.

Although Van Roten didn’t make the initial 53-man roster, he was signed to the practice squad and wound up playing in seven regular-season games after Bryan Bulaga went down with a season-ending hip injury.

Based on his work in practice and one preseason game, the early indication is that Banjo can play.

“It’s definitely tough for me coming in late, especially on the defensive side of the ball with so many things we do in our defense and nuisances but I’m just trying to be consistent in terms of how I’ve been learning on a day-to-day basis,” said Banjo, who earned honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition during his senior year at SMU in 2011 for recording 82 tackles, two passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.

It is plausible the Packers will only keep three safeties at the end of August with their surplus of capable cornerbacks. Jarrett Bush’s previous experience at the position could easily be used as a safeguard, but time still is on Banjo's side to make a case for another reserve.

The same goes for the team's two other undrafted safeties David Fulton and Chaz Powell, a Penn State alumnus who spent the latter half of the 2012 season on the practice squad.

In last Friday’s 17-0 loss to Arizona, Banjo led the safety group with 41 plays (32 defensively) and registered four tackles, including one for a loss – an outing that was well worth the nearly two-year wait to get onto the field for a preseason game.
“It’s definitely hard,” said Banjo of sitting out 2012. “Not only physically, but more so mentally to wonder if anything is ever going to happen. If you’re making the right decision but I just thank God for the opportunity and the way things turn out to have the opportunity to be here.”

As for the name – which earned an acknowledgement from Sports Illustrated’s MMQB as one of the best in the NFL – Banjo doesn’t know the origin other than it has to do with his Nigerian heritage, but wears it as a badge of honor.

Inside the locker room, it's led to him developing the nickname “Django” like the lead character in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino Film, “Django Unchained.”

Could there be some star potential in this role with the Packers? Possibly, but Banjo knows it’s up to him to distinguish himself for reasons other than the obvious.

“Beside my last name?” joked Banjo when asked what separates himself. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything too different from me in the NFL. You’re really noticing a lot of people have a lot of fire to them already, have that edge to them already. I think the biggest thing that separates people is the level of consistency. That’s the thing I’ve tried to focus on since I’ve been here is just being as consistent as I possibly can.”

Editor’s note: The Green Bay Press-Gazette’s “Getting to Know” series runs throughout training camp and looks at some of the rookies, undrafted players and new additions to the Packers’ roster this offseason.

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Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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