Bush finds longevity on special teams

Aug. 24, 2013
GPG 082013 Packers Training Camp
Green Bay Packers cornerback Jarrett Bush is in his eighth NFL season, largely because of his talent and work ethic on special teams. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media

Believe it or not, there was a time when Jarrett Bush couldn’t have cared less about special teams.

As an ambitious and excitable undrafted rookie out of Utah State, the 6-foot cornerback came to training camp with the Carolina Panthers in 2006 with only defense on his mind.

That was until an assistant coach pulled Bush aside and pointed him toward the locker of Karl Hankton, a nine-year NFL veteran and the Panthers’ ace on special teams.

At 36 years old, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound receiver had outlasted nearly every player his age despite entering the season with only 17 career catches for 236 yards at his natural position. In 114 regular-season games, he never caught a touchdown pass.

The reason Hankton maintained his spot on the 53-man roster every year boiled down to an oft-forgotten phase of the game: special teams.

“I remember the coach said, ‘That No. 88. There’s always going to be a jersey there because special teams are so crucial,’ ” Bush said. “There might have been seven or six receivers (on the roster) and Karl Hankton wasn’t the best receiver, but he played such a role on special teams he suited up every week.

“That kind of hit home for me like, damn, every week he’s doing something right.”

Lessons learned

Standing near the locker he’s called home for the past eight years with the Green Bay Packers, the 29-year-old Bush laughs when he thinks back to that first NFL camp and the time Hankton got on him for not concentrating enough on special teams.

Bush didn’t make the Panthers’ roster that year but gained valuable insight into what it takes for unsung players to succeed in the NFL. By the time the Packers claimed him off waivers, his eyes were open to what was required.

In Green Bay, Bush has been the “Karl Hankton” of coach Shawn Slocum’s special team units, becoming the first Packers player to register double-digit tackles on special teams in seven consecutive years since the statistic started being recorded in 1976.

Defensively, he’s had his moments, but acknowledges an unrelenting approach to training and penchant for getting his hands dirty are the prevailing reasons why he’s still cashing NFL paychecks rather than collecting pension benefits.

Bush never has slept comfortably the night before a roster cut but always remained open to helping the other long shots and hopefuls challenging for his spot.

“One great thing about J.B., he’s always willing to help,” said third-year safety M.D. Jennings, who was one of three undrafted rookies to make the roster in 2011. “He’s basically a coach out there. He’s probably one of — he is the best gunner on the team. He’s been doing it for a while. … It’s always good to have a guy like J.B. around.”

Setting an example

When asked about Bush’s ability, a half-dozen of his teammates and coaches independently and unsolicited used the word “motor” to describe his game.

That Energizer bunny mentality to the NFL is what made rookie running back Johnathan Franklin gravitate toward Bush. Despite playing on opposite sides of the ball, Franklin asked to join Bush in his post-practice workouts inside Lambeau Field, where he straps a weighted vest to his chest and one-hops up the stadium steps.

During their sessions, Bush and Franklin talk football, life and everything in between. It’s allowed Franklin to gain passage into the veteran’s iron-clad resolve, an unflappable disposition that’s repelled perennial criticism about the deficiencies in his game.

Bush may not possess the coverage skills of Tramon Williams, Sam Shields or even second-year cornerback Casey Hayward, but he’ll outwork anyone with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

“It shows you what hard work can do — hard work and dedication regardless of what people are saying,” Franklin said. “Because he always talks about how people still doubt him, how people still say he might not make the team or he’s still fighting for a job.

“Just to see him at peace and see him still working, it’s amazing because at the end of the day we’re all human. We have emotions. We all have feelings and we all are affected by certain things in life.”

No one knows that side of Bush better than cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who has seen Bush work tirelessly to extract every morsel of potential out of his game.

That approach earned him a starting job in last year’s regular-season opener against San Francisco, when he played 42 of the 85 defensive snaps he saw all season.

The following week, Bush was back on special teams, but nobody heard him chirp about it. Instead, he quietly helped groom Hayward and second-year pro Davon House while extending his consecutive games played streak to 91.

“The reason he’s here — and I know fans, they complain this, that and the third — but he’s just tougher than most guys that have been around here,” Whitt said. “He does everything right, he’s always available. He’s just what you want as a football player. I think he’s very valuable to this team and just the person and the character he has the way he approaches this game is second to none.”

Another season?

The Packers will cut their roster to 75 players by Tuesday and then to 53 shortly after Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City.

Like Hankton, whose career ended following that 2006 season, there’s no guarantee for the way Bush makes a living. The Packers are stacked at cornerback with the quick maturation of fifth-round rookie Micah Hyde, but Bush seems like a good bet to make the roster even after missing Friday’s 17-10 preseason loss to Seattle with an ankle injury.

That’s because when it comes to bucking trends in a sink-or-swim environment like the NFL, the former undrafted cornerback has done a pretty good job of exceeding expectations — sometimes even his own.

“They say the average is 2.3 years, 2.4 years, so I’m doing all right for myself,” Bush said. “Hopefully when they look at my situation — how’s Bush been staying here so long? They can take it for what it’s worth and watch and learn. I can only say so much, but how I do it or how they do it is how you achieve that goal.”

whodkiew@pressgazettemedia.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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