Teammates rave about his poise, his discipline. Quinten Rollins, they say, is a quick study. The Green Bay Packers rookie cornerback is always listening, always learning.
That drive has helped him become one of the fastest-rising players on the Packers' roster. His ascension has been warp speed. Twenty months ago, Rollins had his first college football practice.
There he was Sunday in Oakland, leaping in the end zone to bat away a touchdown pass. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr targeted Rollins 11 times and finished with a 74.1 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
Sitting at his locker inside O.co Coliseum’s visiting locker room, safety Morgan Burnett’s eyes got big. The sixth-year veteran shook his head. No, Burnett said, he can’t believe Rollins has been a cornerback for less than two years.
“If you didn’t know him,” Burnett said, “you would think he’d been playing the position since a young kid.”
After four seasons as a point guard at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Rollins became a second-round draft pick last spring. Fourteen games later, he’s carving a bigger role for himself in the Packers secondary by the week.
Rollins has started two of the past three games, playing 74.8 percent of defensive snaps in that stretch. He may get another start Sunday if top cornerback Sam Shields doesn’t clear concussion protocol before the Packers travel to face the Arizona Cardinals.
The Packers would prefer Shields be available, but there’s a comparison teammates and coaches like to bring up when the discussion turns to Rollins.
“He kind of reminds you of a Sam Shields,” Burnett said. “A guy who hasn’t been playing the position long, but shows the athletic ability he has. He’s coachable. He listens. He works hard, like Sam. He’s willing to compete.
“He doesn’t talk much. He lets his actions do the talking. That’s what I really respect about the guy.”
The Packers have taken an aggressive approach with Rollins’ development. While he has adjusted to the NFL, Rollins’ versatility has made him a valuable commodity. He has learned to play the nickel and dime cornerback positions, and he played 75 snaps on the perimeter Sunday against the Raiders.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said Rollins is the first rookie he has coached in Green Bay to start off learning all three spots. It’s an impressive distinction for a player who wasn’t a cornerback until the spring of 2014.
“I’m trying to be a complete player,” Rollins said. “So when I say I’m not where I want to be, I want to work on everything. That’s my goal, and I’m going to keep continuing to knock on the door every day until I get that done.”
Rollins’ inexperience has some benefits. He arrived in Green Bay as a blank canvas. A “fresh piece of clay,” college coaches called him. Without a lifetime of playing cornerback, Whitt said, Rollins had fewer bad habits to shake.
His biggest adjustment was moving past the key to his college success. Behind his seven interceptions at Miami, Rollins developed a nasty tendency. Whitt said his rookie would look in the backfield, watching the quarterback. It allowed him to anticipate passes, playing the football instead of his assignment.
The reward was a Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor and a quality pay day. Only problem, Whitt said, is the danger of NFL cornerbacks staring at the quarterback.
“If you use that technique up here,” Whitt said, “you’re going to see the ball thrown and completed on you. Because these quarterbacks can make those throws. In college, there are very few good quarterbacks. In college, quarterbacks can’t make those throws. Everybody, even the bad quarterbacks, up here can make those throws.”
Naturally, Rollins has been in fellow rookie cornerback Damarious Randall’s shadow since the two arrived in Green Bay.
Randall was the Packers’ first-round pick, Rollins the second. Randall has started eight games and played 678 snaps, while Rollins’ role has blossomed only recently. Randall has three interceptions and 14 defended passes; Rollins has two interceptions and six defended passes.
In the future, Randall might become the Packers' top cornerback, but Rollins’ importance to the secondary shouldn’t be overlooked.
In two drafts, general manager Ted Thompson has aligned the Packers’ secondary for prolonged success. He selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with a first-round pick in 2014, then spent his first two picks on Randall and Rollins last spring. Each are 23 and appear capable of being longtime starters with the Packers.
Rollins’ versatility should keep him on the field in a variety of positions.
“The more you can do,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I always tell these guys, ‘The more you can do.’ So you want to try to become as proficient at a number of different positions, because as we go through the course of a game you’re going to be playing a number of different positions if you get a guy nicked.”
Rollins should only continue to improve the longer he plays cornerback. He’s starting from a strong base. Maybe his stubborn confidence is most important. Rollins said he hasn’t felt like a rookie since Week 5, when Whitt told him he’d moved past that status.
Later that week, he had two interceptions and his first NFL touchdown against the St. Louis Rams.
“When you tell him to do something,” Whitt said, “for the most part he gets it done that way. His football knowledge is increasing, and once he really understands football, he’s going to make a lot of plays because he has natural instincts. He’s a ball guy. Once he really understands where his help is and how to move and maneuver through the defense, he has a bright future.”
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