Early cameo prepares Brice amid thin secondary
GREEN BAY - As the secondary for the Green Bay Packers played musical chairs in the closing minutes of the win over Jacksonville, it was easy to miss the debut of safety Kentrell Brice.
An undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech, Brice was introduced during the frantic final drive. The Jaguars, needing a touchdown to win, marched within 42 feet of a back-breaking score that likely would have sunk the Packers. As quarterback Blake Bortles gobbled up yards, the Packers' secondary nearly wilted.
No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields dropped out with what was later diagnosed as a concussion, the fifth of his career. LaDarius Gunter, another corner, left the game with cramps and was off the field on the final possession. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and corner Quinten Rollins dropped to a knee between snaps, trying frantically to regain their breath in boiling conditions.
Buried beneath all that were nine brief snaps allotted to Brice, who entered the game when starting safety Morgan Burnett was moved to dime cornerback out of desperation. Brice paired with Clinton-Dix to marshall the secondary and secure the win.
"It was a great experience being able to get in and participate and try to continue to build my craft, get better and better," Brice said Thursday. "It just builds confidence, so I’m just trying to continue to get better each and every day.
"The first couple seconds (you’re nervous) but then you’ve got to play ball after that. It’s still football at the end of the day. It was a clutch situation, but you’ve just got to trust your preparation and your game plan. Then you’ll be all right."
In the bigger picture of what was an exciting game, Brice's contribution is largely insignificant. But given the health of Shields, who is unlikely to play against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, Brice is almost certainly the next man up if the secondary suffers any further injuries.
"It can only help him," safeties coach Darren Perry said Thursday evening, "and Brice has got a lot of snaps in the preseason, obviously. Preseason isn’t like the regular season, but he handled himself well. He’s a poised young player and sometimes it’s going to be like that. That’s why we’ve got to always prepare. When you’re a backup you never know when your number’s going to be called and you’ve got to be ready to go at all times."
As of Friday morning, the Packers had only three healthy corners on the roster: Rollins, Gunter and Damarious Randall, the new No. 1 for cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. If injuries force the introduction of a new player, it would have to be a safety. And Brice, whose remarkable athleticism flashed throughout training camp — 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 42-inch vertical leap, 21 reps on the bench press, 11-1 broad jump — is in line to get the nod over Milwaukee-native Marwin Evans, another undrafted safety who made the 53-man roster. (Marwins has yet to play from scrimmage this season.)
For what it's worth, Brice was a cornerback in high school. He did not switch to safety until the first day of his freshman season. He has not played corner since.
Still, Brice's stellar play in the exhibition games prompted increased media attention as camp progressed. He went from a relatively unknown prospect — Brice was not invited to the NFL scouting combine — to a virtual lock to make the roster in the minds of most journalists. Through it all, he sought to avoid reading about his own performance.
"I tried not to read up on myself but I had a couple family members and friends tell me things like that," Brice said. "I just tried to block it out so I could continue to build and not just get complacent or think, ‘OK, I’m doing good enough.’ I just wanted to continue to get better each and every day."
But if he makes a few plays during the regular season, his family might have a lot more stories to read.
Injury report: Safety Chris Banjo (hamstring), outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott (hamstring) and Shields (concussion) were all listed as doubtful on Friday’s injury report.
All three players were unable to practice this week.
Cornerback Josh Hawkins also missed practice and has not been available since tweaking his hamstring against Kansas City in the exhibition finale. Hawkins will not play Sunday.
For the Vikings, three players have been ruled out: defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (knee), tight end MyCole Pruitt (knee) and No. 1 corner Xavier Rhodes (knee).
Starting left tackle Matt Kalil (hip) did not practice Wednesday or Thursday but was able to move on a limited basis Friday. He is likely to start against the Packers, though his effectiveness is a legitimate concern.