Packers get creative to connect with rookies

Lori Nickel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - The game may have been invented in the Gilded Age, but we are living in a modern technological revolution. And that means Green Bay Packers assistant coaches have had to ditch their chalkboards for whiteboards, their playbooks for iPads, and their FedEx packages for Skype.

Green Bay Packers rookie Kenny Clark stretches during practice under the eyes of Packers general manager Ted Thompson during rookie camp in the Don Hutson Center May 6,  2016.

When three of Green Bay’s draft picks had to spend the last month on their college campuses per NFL rules because they were on the quarter scheduling system, the Packers had to find a way to communicate with their future players to get them up to speed during off-season workouts.

So some of them used Skype every day, between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m., as permitted by the league, to talk football.

The thing is, these were 20-something college kids working with coaches who grew up in the era of cassette tape answering machines and VCRs. It took Packers offensive line coach James Campen a little while to get tech savvy.

“Yeah — we kind of had some issues” rookie tackle Kyle Murphy of Stanford said Tuesday after the first practice of the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp. “That was the first time he’s ever used the Skype. It took him an hour the first time to figure out how to share the screen. ...

“Then when he did, he couldn’t figure out how to see myself while he shared the screen. ...

“And then assistant coach David Raih — he’s in his late 20s — comes in.”

Murphy motions as if he’s typing on a keyboard.

“Bada bing, bada boom. We were ready to go,” Murphy said. “We were like, man, you’ve got to teach Coach Campen a thing or two.”

But the beauty of this game is that it became the other way around. With decades of experience, Campen could teach Murphy a thing or two about the Green Bay offense once the visual communication was up and running, and that has made for a much easier transition for Murphy.

“It was almost like sitting across from him,” Murphy said. “He could pull up film clips while I’m talking to him. He could use the little cursor and circle a player. Or circle a scheme that he wanted to show me.

“It was better than just trying to mail you a big stack of papers and say, ‘Try to learn this.’ ...

The consistent communication helped the other rookies too — first-round pick Kenny Clark, a nose tackle from UCLA, and fourth-rounder Dean Lowry, a defensive end from Northwestern. Both talked to defensive line coach Mike Trgovac regularly conference-call style on the phone.

“It was tough sometimes getting us all together,” Lowry said. “I was in Chicago, he was in Green Bay and Kenny was in L.A., so it was different time zones. That was a little challenging at times but we got through it.

“We would talk on the phone and go over the iPad and the plays. He would talk us through it.”

Trgovac said it helped that both players are bright and quick learners.

“Now you don’t get to see them face to face and get your hands on them to coach them, but they won’t be as far behind,” Trgovac said. “It’s not like they left here and I’ve never talked to them again.”

With school finished and all three arriving in Green Bay last week, they said they didn’t feel too far behind.

“Hopefully by the end of this minicamp, I will feel comfortable,” Clark said.

Now that they’re back in Green Bay, it is clear none of them were crazy about the restrictions that caused them to miss a month of work. While Lowry took his three classes, he checked up on the team online occasionally just to see who was doing well in practice.

“You just want to be there so bad,” he said.

Clark wasn’t even enrolled in classes. He just stuck around campus. He said that one day he’ll go back and pursue his degree in African-American studies.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst rule, but I was so anxious to be out here,” Clark said. “I just wanted to be out here.”

Murphy is three classes short of his degree and said his school schedule was light as well with just a couple classes. He was frustrated with the NFL rule, although he understood the intention behind it.

“If you want to just put school on hold, you should be able to,” he said.

While they were on their own, they all kept working. Clark worked out at school and looked for other ways to stay in shape, like a 5 a.m. hike up one of the mountains near his home in San Bernardino, Calif.

“I was like, wow. I haven’t hiked in forever,” Clark said. “It was just a little five-mile hike, it was good cardio.”

Murphy trained with two other drafted teammates from Stanford, doing yoga, weightlifting, conditioning and field work.

“We all had our iPads; it helped that we all kept each other motivated,” Murphy said. “We would watch the basketball game and stay up late, studying plays during commercials.”

The one thing he wouldn’t do with college teammates was swap or compare the playbooks of their new teams.

“We were pretty confidential with that,” he said. “We all play offense, so it wasn’t anything like we were going to go against each other. We just talked generic things — like what drills we needed to do in practice. But nothing about scheme.”

Lowry looked at the team drills and workouts the Packers were doing with the strength and conditioning staff and mimicked the same work on his own.

And yet as ready as they were, none of the rookies were thrown into team action at the end of organized team activities last week or the start of minicamp.

“I was expecting to go full throttle in that OTA last Thursday,” Murphy said. “But they had a real cerebral approach to it. I think they’re making sure our bodies are physically ready so ... our bodies don’t get hurt.

“It’s tough when you see the fellow rookies taking my extra reps. A couple of the older guys are a little banged up ... you wish you could help relieve them. It’s not necessarily my call to make; I’m going to just keep busting my butt, whatever they ask me to do.”

The Packers have two more days of minicamp before taking off for the summer. While the coaches may still decide to ease these three into the swing of things, it’s clear that with the extra communication over the last month, they all feel mentally prepared and ready to go.

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