As veterans boarded planes for parts unknown a little more than two weeks ago, Scott Tolzien and Jared Abbrederis were back running the show during the Green Bay Packers' final mini-camp practice.
In a way, it was apropos that the two overlooked University of Wisconsin products were taking snaps with the first-team offense, while the established starters bolted for early vacation.
Since graduating high school, neither has had the luxury of off-days.
Tolzien was a two-star recruit out of Rolling Meadows, Ill., and Abbrederis hardly got any looks after sustaining a significant injury to his femur and knee near the end of his high school quarterback career at Wautoma.
They earned playing time with the Badgers through work ethic, not physical superiority. It's the same blueprint they follow in the thick of the Packers' two hottest position battles at quarterback and receiver.
"I've had a couple nice plays that I've had in these practices that definitely boost my confidence and let me know I can be here," Abbrederis said. "I've just got to keep working because every day people are coming for your job. We're going to be competing for spots on the team come camp, so it's been good."
Tolzien and Abbrederis shared the field only one year at Wisconsin, but contributed to the Badgers' first Rose Bowl run in a decade. A former walk-on, Abbrederis was on the verge of picking up a scholarship in 2011, only to have eventual Super Bowl-champion Russell Wilson transfer in following Tolzien's graduation.
Abbrederis responded with 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 starts and finally earned a scholarship. This past year, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound receiver was given the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation's most outstanding player who started his career as a walk-on.
Tolzien was watching when Abbrederis was picked by the Packers in the fifth round of May's draft. He'd thrown Abbrederis only 20 of his 202 collegiate receptions, but he knew the Packers were getting someone special.
The state of Wisconsin seems to agree: Many sports stores are unable to keep his No. 84 jersey in stock.
"It's an awesome story," Tolzien said. "I played with Jared and know what we're getting — the type of kid he is, the type of worker he is, the type of teammate he is. I'm lucky enough to have played with Jared and know what you're going to get, day in and day out. I think guys are already realizing what a special player he is."
Winding road to Green Bay
Tolzien never heard his name called on draft day in 2011. He first signed as an undrafted free agent with San Diego and spent two years on San Francisco's active roster before landing on the Packers' practice squad in September.
The unthinkable happened in October when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone and backup Seneca Wallace sustained a season-ending groin injury a week later. Just like that, Tolzien was thrust into action.
After cramming for a month, Tolzien broke a Packers' record for most passing yards in his first start (339) against the New York Giants, but also had five interceptions in three appearances.
That could be attributed to his inability to make line adjustments, but Tolzien said he still must get better. His coaches said a full offseason under the Packers' wing should make that happen.
"He's made improvements throughout the course of the whole camp," Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "It's what you'd expect to see. The more reps anybody gets, the more comfortable they're going to be in the system. … At this point now, you should feel good leaving here, have a good grasp of what the offense is trying to get done."
Tolzien's first season in Green Bay absorbed his final season of practice-squad eligibility. The re-signing of Matt Flynn in April means the two veterans could be battling for one job in camp.
The Packers haven't kept three quarterbacks on the initial 53-man roster since 2008, though coach Mike McCarthy said he's not opposed to doing it. The team's injury problems in 2013 could make a case for fortification at the position.
Abbrederis takes no comfort in his place on the roster, though it's been five years since the Packers cut a rookie fifth-round pick (Jamon Meredith). Three of the 10 receivers on the roster are guaranteed spots (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams), and Jarrett Boykin is a good bet to return for a third season.
That leaves Abbrederis, seventh-round pick Jeff Janis, Chris Harper, Kevin Dorsey, Myles White and Alex Gillett battling for one, possibly two, spots.
One area that should help Abbrederis' case is special teams. He earned his first snaps with the Badgers on the return team and the Packers are looking for a permanent replacement for Cobb on both kickoffs and punts.
Still, he doesn't feel added pressure being the native son. He views his challenge as no different than any other third-day draft pick trying to make his first NFL roster.
"It's crazy," said Abbrederis of going to camp with the Packers. "For me, it really hasn't set in because once camp comes, that's when you have to make the team. Ask me that after this year when hopefully I accomplish the goals I want and set for myself. After that, I'll look back on it, but right now I still have to achieve that."
This has been the challenge for many Wisconsin products who aren't running backs, offensive lineman or J.J. Watt, and both Tolzien and Abbrederis are cool with that.
The former Badgers connected a few times with the veterans away on the last day of mini-camp, including a 3-yard touchdown pass during a move-the-ball period.
Both players know things will be different when the pads go on and the competition ramps up. In three weeks, they must channel all of their offseason work into earning their spot.
"We've got a month off here, and then the challenge really begins," Tolzien said. "I'm glad with where things are at, but like everyone else in this room, I've got a lot of improving to do."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.