GREEN BAY - In hindsight, the most memorable aspect of the Green Bay Packers’ first padded practice might have been the sounds. After an entire offseason in helmets and shorts, the repetitive thwack of chest-to-chest contact was audible in every corner of Ray Nitschke Field on Saturday.
Had the collisions been ranked by decibel level, fullback Joe Kerridge might have walked away the victor.
“It felt good to have the pads on and hit somebody again,” Kerridge said with a smile after Saturday’s practice. “It’s been a while.”
With the metaphorical torch passing from fan-favorite John Kuhn to successor Aaron Ripkowski, the team’s starting fullback last season, fans could be forgiven for not recognizing Kerridge’s name.
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General manager Ted Thompson signed Kerridge to the practice squad Oct. 3, 2016, after the former Michigan product began his career with Washington. When Thompson promoted Kerridge to the active roster one month later, the Packers had a pair of fullbacks on their 53-man roster, a peculiarity in today’s NFL.
But coach Mike McCarthy found ways to use the tools he had, and Kerridge played 21 snaps from scrimmage in addition to 61 on special teams, which was his primary responsibility. At times McCarthy even used a two-fullback package that functioned like an inverted wishbone. The running back behind Ripkowski and Kerridge had dual escorts across the line of scrimmage.
“It was great to be out there with Rip and be able to have the fullbacks playing in the game,” Kerridge said of his limited action last season.
Kerridge made a strong first impression when the Packers donned pads for the first time over the weekend. He held up well in both of his reps in the one-on-one blitz-pickup drill, fighting inside linebacker Jordan Tripp to a stalemate and later beating inside backer Jake Ryan. (Wins and losses are unofficial stats tracked by reporters.)
The success transferred to the equally physical half-line drill, which sharpens the running game by using reduced versions of the offensive and defensive lines. Kerridge unleashed a number of heavy blows to incoming rushers that cleared the way for the tailbacks. His targets included inside linebackers Cody Heiman and Derrick Mathews, who was absolutely flattened, and rookie safety Josh Jones.
Jones was so impressed with Kerridge’s hit that he jumped up and tapped Kerridge on the helmet before trotting back to the huddle — an outward sign of respect for good, clean contact.
“We just work really hard in individual work with our feet, keeping our feet moving, making sure we’re not getting hit and we’re the ones delivering the blow,” Kerridge said. “You just take the fundamentals you’ve grown up with and you’ve learned over the years: You’ve got to keep your face up, you just want to make sure you’re the one delivering the blow.”
With crowded depth charts at running back, wide receiver and cornerback, it’s possible the Packers will choose to retain only one fullback on their 53-man roster. And while Ripkowski and Kerridge are both core special teams players, they acknowledged the unusual nature of keeping two players at what amounts to a niche position.
“It’s always a possibility, you know?” Ripkowski said. “We’re all competing with anybody. It’s just the way this league is; everybody is competing with everybody. Even when we were competing against each other, it’s not just Joe and I are competing. It’s Joe and I competing against every other person because every roster spot is valuable. It doesn’t matter about position, really. And plus, we’re not just worried about a roster spot; we’re out here to win. We’re trying to get things done the right way.”
In that regard, any element of one-on-one competition goes unspoken.
“I think I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Kerridge said. “I think Rip’s doing the exact same thing. We’re always helping each other, we’re always teaching each other. If we see something we’ll come and talk to each other at the end of each day. He’s helped me out a great deal over this offseason. There’s always competition; it’s the NFL. I’m not looking down the line that far. I’m taking it one day at a time and trying to make myself better.”
Opportunity knocks: As an undrafted free agent, Johnathan Calvin will need to make an impression quickly if he wants to make the team.
On the plus side, he’s being given that opportunity.
Calvin has started out high on the depth chart on special teams, including first team on kickoff return and kick block. It’s rare for undrafted rookies to get those opportunities, but the 6-3, 275-pound Calvin has some ability.
“I led the SEC in field goal blocks,” Calvin said. “I just kind of got a feel for it. It’s something I like to do. When I first got to Mississippi State, I heard about Fletcher Cox and he used to block field goals. It just got my attention.”
Calvin also had 55 tackles, seven sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and 11 ½ tackles for loss as a senior at Mississippi State last year playing mostly as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
As much as he’d like to be a pass rusher, special teams is the key to his future right now. The games will prove to be the determining factor in whether he’s worthy of a roster spot, but he’s done enough in practice so far to move up the ranks on special teams.
“I’m getting the hang of it,” Calvin said. “I’m getting better at it day by day.”