Ripkowski ready to take handoff from Kuhn
GREEN BAY - The familiar cry has echoed in stadiums across the country, from Century Link Field in Seattle to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. One syllable, slow and elastic through the middle, designed to celebrate the short-yardage contributions of a long-tenured player.
But for the first time since 2008, when fullback John Kuhn caught a 1-yard touchdown against the Seahawks, the chant elongating his last name might go unuttered.
Kuhn, 33, remains an unrestricted free agent after his contract with the Green Bay Packers expired in March. His goal is to play during the upcoming season, according to a source close to Kuhn, though at the moment he lacks a place to do so. As of last month, the source said he believed the Packers still were open to a potential return.
In the interim, and perhaps eventually for the long term, the Packers are moving forward without Kuhn, a player they claimed off waivers in September of 2007 and have relied on ever since. The potential for a post-Kuhn era, if there is to be one this season, likely hinges on the development of fullback Aaron Ripkowski, the second-year player now atop the depth chart. A strong showing between now and August could win Ripkowski the job, and, perhaps somewhat cruelly, he’ll be drawing on lessons learned from Kuhn along the way.
“Veteran players helping the younger players is a component of our operation,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “and to me it’s essential to any healthy NFL locker room. Whether it’s professionally, personally, John Kuhn was definitely exemplary with his time with Rip.
“If you would ask younger players that go on to develop, I would think each and every one of them have a player or two, or several, from their rookie year who shows them the way.”
The Packers selected Ripkowski in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft, plucking him from Oklahoma after a four-year career that he began as a walk-on — and a linebacker. Ripkowski grew up some 45 minutes from Houston in Dayton, Texas, and cut his teeth as a linebacker, defensive end and occasional offensive guard. When he enrolled at Oklahoma, the Sooners converted him to an old-school, smash-mouth fullback.
It was there that the careers of Ripkowski and Kuhn diverged. Where the former was used almost exclusively to block, the latter rushed for more than 4,600 yards on 900-plus carries in a starring role for Shippensburg. Ripkowski only touched the ball 14 times in four years at Oklahoma — six carries, eight receptions, 54 total yards.
To put it another way, Kuhn has more rushing touchdowns with the Packers (15) than Ripkowski had touches of the football in college.
“I never really developed a knack for wanting to touch the ball the whole time,” Ripkowski said. “Not saying I can’t, but it’s not something I want to do all the time. If they want me to do it, then I’ll do it. But if not, a job is a job.”
Even if Ripkowski earns a starting role, it’s still unclear what exactly his job would be. A year ago, the use of a fullback changed drastically when McCarthy reclaimed play-calling duties from associate head coach/offense Tom Clements. With Clements in charge, Kuhn averaged just 11.7 snaps per game over the course of 12 games. That number exploded to 37.2 snaps per game after McCarthy made the change.
But there is still another layer of uncertainty surrounding the position thanks to the atypical performance of last year’s offense. Would Kuhn have been used so prominently if the passing game hadn’t crumbled because of injuries? Would his presence have been so necessary if tailback Eddie Lacy had arrived in better shape?
Or perhaps McCarthy turned to Kuhn because he knew the veteran would produce.
“There’s a lot more stuff you have to worry about, a lot of pass-protection stuff involved, more checks and reads,” Ripkowski said. “In this league, it doesn’t matter what position it is: If you’re not learning every day, they’re going to find someone who is.”
And so Ripkowski served as understudy throughout the change in offensive approach. Though he relied on running backs coach Sam Gash for his primary instruction, Kuhn offered the additional benefits of a one-on-one teacher. Often, Ripkowski said, he would ask Kuhn for tips while Gash shifted his attention to other players. For the season, he played just 18 snaps on offense and did not record a carry.
But Ripkowski usurped some of Kuhn’s reps on special teams, where he was a core performer for coordinator Ron Zook. Beginning in training camp, when Ripkowski made several thunderous tackles, he flashed the appropriate blend of kamikaze and guile. And while it took refining — Zook once chastised him for making a tackle by vacating his proper lane — he finished the season with the fourth-most special teams snaps (309) and the fifth-most tackles (nine).
That Kuhn also helped him in this regard is undeniable.
“He was phenomenal,” Ripkowski said. “Whatever questions I asked, he answered and then some. He knows the offense just as well as anybody around here. So I guess you could say you can’t really put or quantify how much he helped because it was above and beyond anything you could ask for.”
With Kuhn out of the picture, at least for now, Ripkowski has been handed an opportunity to replace his mentor. After uncounted hours of tutelage, he could be the one to officially silence Kuhn’s trademark chant.
It’s something Ripkowski said he does not think about. Pretty soon, however, he just might have to.
“I better make some plays before I start thinking about stuff like that,” he said. “I haven’t done enough around here to worry about all that yet.”