Aaron Nagler discusses the Green Bay Packers' first Friday night practice of the season. (Aug. 4, 2017)
GREEN BAY - In the grueling marathon of training camp, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy identifies certain checkpoints that serve as measuring sticks for his football team: the end of the installation phase, the first exhibition game, the now-defunct roster cut from 90 players to 75 players and the final exhibition games to burst the roster bubble.
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Silly as it may sound, the Packers’ annual practice inside Lambeau Field fits into the same category. It’s the first opportunity for McCarthy and his staff to test the young players in a game-like atmosphere. They evaluate things like composure, pre-snap communication and substitution patterns.
But perhaps most importantly, the coaches test their special teams units, where many rookies and first-year players are given responsibilities they’ve never had before. It’s a critical checkpoint for special teams coordinator Ron Zook.
“There’s going to be 77,000 people out there,” McCarthy said at his Friday news conference. “It’s a great atmosphere, all the kids and families, it’s a different atmosphere. It’s a great experience. I don’t know if we could possibly do a better job of preparing them to play in a preseason game next Thursday than what they’re going to experience tomorrow night.”
The evening dovetails with one of the most popular clichés in and around the organization. From general manager Ted Thompson to assistant coaches to veteran players, the message remains the same: For rookies, the easiest path to earning a spot on the 53-man roster is performing well on special teams.
While the general premise is accurate, the statement itself deserves some quantification. It’s true that rookies who star on special teams are likely to make the final roster, but assuming that success on special teams comes easily is far less than accurate. Especially for incoming running backs, tight ends and receivers whose special teams contributions in college are often slim to none.
“I think the whole thing with special teams is a lot of these guys have not played it and it is a different position,” Zook said. “They’ve been a receiver, so when they come in and they’re a receiver, they know how to run a route and they understand it. Well, sometimes covering a kick or making a tackle, that’s a — I don’t want to say that’s a learned response or a learned execution — but it’s still something.
“They know it’s a physical game and usually at some time, some part through their lives, I’ve seen, there’s been running backs and lot of times linebackers or running backs in high school just have a knack, I really believe that. Just like anything else in the game of football, tackling is a — not everybody tackles the same way.”
In other words, special teams can place a premium on the breadth of each player’s football experience in high school. Many of the best high school players — especially ones that wind up in the NFL — were talented enough to contribute on both sides of the ball. Receivers often have played corner or safety; running backs have made solid linebackers; tight ends have doubled as edge rushers.
And, as McCarthy often points out, athletes who played multiple sports in high school often adapt at a faster rate.
“I think it really leads to their individual experience,” McCarthy said. “You go through history, I mean, I’ve seen some running backs who are probably as good of tacklers as I’ve come against in the NFL. So that’s why when you look at a guy’s background, players who play multiple sports, I think that’s a huge advantage because the instincts and awareness just from their nature of how they grew up in athletics is enhanced, in my opinion.
“So I’m not real comfortable with saying that defensive guys are better tacklers than offensive guys. I think by the numbers they should be since they have more experience at it, but football players are football players. So I think it really leads to the background of each and every guy.”
Such was the case for rookie running back Aaron Jones, a fifth-round pick from UTEP. Jones said he asked his college coaches to use him on special teams, but the coaches demurred given his importance to the offense. Instead, Jones is relying on his tackling experience as a defensive back at Burges High School in El Paso, Texas.
“I played defense all the way up into high school growing up,” Jones said, “and every day in college we worked tackling fundamentals, and that’s what we’re doing here as well. That definitely helps. … When it comes to special teams periods, you want to know what’s going on at all times. You don’t want to be asking questions or asking coach. You want to look like you already know what’s going on.”
Rookie wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey falls under the same umbrella. Yancey, a fifth-round pick from Purdue, played safety in high school but never incurred the types of special teams responsibilities given to freshmen and sophomores in college because he jumped into the offense immediately. Yancey caught 32 passes for 546 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman, and the coaching staff never used him anywhere else.
When asked, Yancey guessed that he made three tackles in his entire collegiate career. He was close: The official statistics credited him with four.
“I was always a backup (on special teams),” Yancey said, “so I got a little knowledge at a lot (of areas). So it’s not like it’s new to me. … I feel pretty comfortable. It’s not really tough because I’ve seen all the terms and heard the terminology; I’ve seen it before. I just haven’t done it in live action. But the way Zook is teaching it, he makes it real simple and easy to get.”
Then there are players who, for a number of different reasons, have never really had to tackle anyone. ESPN ranked rookie wide receiver Malachi Dupre as the No. 1 wideout in the country coming out of John Curtis High School in 2013. Dupre dabbled on kickoff and kickoff return units early in his high school career, but after that he focused exclusively on offense.
At Louisiana State, where Dupre skipped his senior year to become a seventh-round pick, his only experience on special teams came with the onside kick units where his dexterity was a valuable commodity.
“Our coach is always stressing the importance of (special teams), and I understand it without them even saying anything,” Dupre said. “It goes without being said. I’m just out there just trying to play as many positions on as many different teams as I can. It’s new to me because I didn’t do it in college, but at the same time I see myself as a football player and I feel like I’m very versatile and have a lot of different capabilities.
“I’m here to play football, and whatever it takes to be a part of this great team and organization, I’m here to make it happen.”