Gunter's goal: Remain Packers' top cornerback
GREEN BAY - The largest media scrum inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room Tuesday engulfed rookie cornerback Kevin King, a second-round pick in this year’s draft. King had just returned to Green Bay after completing the spring semester at Washington, and as the top selection his presence drew a crowd.
If all goes well, King will adjust seamlessly to the NFL and earn a starting job across from veteran corner Davon House. The two of them will anchor the perimeter as Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins man the slots.
In order for that to materialize, King must unseat LaDarius Gunter, the top returning cornerback from last season. Gunter has taken first-team reps throughout OTAs while King was out of town.
“It’s just OTAs,” Gunter said recently. “It really doesn’t mean much. I’d rather be taking them in the first game. I’m just trying to get better with each and every route.”
Such bluntness is an accurate reflection of Gunter’s conversational style, which is direct and to the point. He answers questions with two or three sentences at most. He never says more than he has to. He speaks honestly and critically, even if his statements are terse.
His goal, of course, is to prevent King or anyone else from taking the spot he was thrust into last season, when the Packers’ secondary resembled a MASH unit littered with spare parts. He played 85.7 percent of snaps last season after finishing camp fourth on the cornerback depth chart. He was the only man left standing; a boost in confidence was the result.
“I feel a lot of confidence,” Gunter said. “But at the same time I still approach every day as I want to be better with technique and different areas of my game, you know? You’re never too good to get better or to improve. I just use these opportunities to improve.”
At first blush, Gunter’s interpretation of the 2016 season feels paradoxical. Yes, he was the No. 1 corner from the fifth game through the end of the year, but during that stretch were unsightly flare-ups against some of the best receivers in the league. He shadowed Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones in a stretch of three consecutive games, and Beckham was the only player held under 132 yards.
But Gunter said those experiences — even the traumatic ones — alerted him to the importance of mental preparation in addition to reps on the field. With the exception of Jones, who isn’t known as a braggart, Gunter covered a number of receivers who live for the opportunity to make big plays and tell the defense about it at every turn. Handling the opposing team’s best receiver means weathering the personality that comes with him.
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“It’s just the approach you had to practice each week and the focus during the game and during that week,” Gunter said. “It was definitely a challenge, but I felt like I came to play in most of those games. And it showed up pretty well for me.
“A lot of knowledge of the game, seeing some things you would rarely see in practice and the speed of the game. I feel like I gained a lot from last year.”
Though opposing receivers found ways to exploit Gunter’s lack of speed and average athleticism, his position coach, Joe Whitt Jr., defended Gunter’s performances quite passionately during a news conference earlier this spring. He identified Gunter as the only cornerback on the roster who had what might be considered a productive season in 2016.
“You talk about LaDarius and I’m going to add Micah Hyde to this,” Whitt said. “Those two men are the reasons we even got as far as we got, OK? I put LaDarius in some very hard situations. The last two games I probably shouldn’t have put him in the situations that I did. But it was best for the team, OK? Out of the 19 games that we played, he probably had as many winning performances as anybody on the team.
“There were up and downs with him, but if it wasn’t for him and if it wasn’t for Micah we wouldn’t have got to the NFC championship game. Hopefully, with the addition of the men that we add back to the room, we can take a little bit of that stress off his play, and he doesn’t have to take some of the coverages that Sam (Shields) was taking, he’s going to play at a higher level consistently throughout the year.
“But the way he went out there and fought, and he did everything that we asked, you can’t ask anymore from a man.”
Gunter said Whitt offered a soothing presence during the season’s toughest stretch. They met each week to discuss the game plan as Gunter became the clear-cut No. 1 corner. And after every meeting Whitt told Gunter to play his own brand of football — aggressive, handsy and physical.
“He was just telling me, ‘Do you. Be Gunt and go out and contest every route and every catch. That should be good enough for us to come out with a win.’”
Now Gunter hopes it will be good enough to retain his starting spot.