GREEN BAY – Reckless abandon fuels each collision, a disregard for his safety as much as the poor soul he’s about to flatten. As Kentrell Brice approaches his target, he calculates angles and simultaneously clears his mind.
He knows this will hurt. It usually hurts. He just doesn’t care.
“You don’t think,” Brice said. “You just hit.”
Brice is a walking conundrum in a safety-wrapped sport. The NFL, reacting to concussion concerns, clamped down on head hunters in the past decade. New rules restrict violence the league once glorified, shrinking windows for legal blows. Big hits are supposed to be nearing extinction.
Somebody forgot to tell Brice.
He isn’t hulking by professional football’s standard. Just 5-11, Brice weighs 200 pounds soaking wet. That hardly seems to matter. As one college coach explained, the Green Bay Packers' second-year safety is a “cement truck” plowing into grown men.
He doesn’t so much tackle. Brice obliterates.
“He’s a striker,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said this summer. “He may not be as big as some of ‘em, but when he hits you, he hits you. He brings it from his heels, toes.”
With a hockey fighter’s toughness, Brice quickly became an enforcer on the Packers' defense. After lapping up experience as an undrafted rookie, he’s poised to be a full-time starter this fall. Morgan Burnett’s versatility at linebacker enticed Dom Capers to fundamentally change his scheme, but Brice’s emergence made it possible.
Under a coordinator known for slowly increasing young players’ snaps, Brice ascended the depth chart like a first-round pick. He missed only two plays Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, and will be vital to the Packers’ three-safety “nitro” package this weekend at the Atlanta Falcons.
Train wrecks are Brice’s brand. Make no mistake, there’s more to his game than decking hapless fools. He played three different defenses in his first three seasons at Louisiana Tech. It wasn’t an ideal way to catch NFL scouts’ attention, but starting from scratch each year taught how to quickly absorb schematics.
Brice learns defenses like a student cramming for tests, writing calls on notecards before committing them to memorization.
“His communication is outstanding,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think a lot of rookies go through (a stage), you're feeling your way and doing your assignment. Echo, maybe, the call and so forth. But that jumped out at me with the OTAs and definitely carried forward into training camp.
“That's a big reason why he's played as much as he's played. Between special teams and defense, I don't know if anybody played more against the Seahawks."
This wasn’t supposed to happen. During Brice’s final college season, scout after scout visited Bulldogs defensive coordinator Blake Baker, raising concerns over his praises. Brice’s inexperience in man coverage scared some teams, Baker said. His diminished production as a senior averted others.
Those scouts returned this summer, evaluating a new batch of Bulldogs. Their conversations, Baker said, start with Brice.
“It’s funny,” Baker said, “to hear scouts a year later come and say, ‘Man, I can’t believe how good he’s playing. I can’t believe it. I thought he might make the practice squad.’
“I’m just sitting there shaking my head, like, ‘I hate to say I told you so.’”
The rumors reached Brice well before April. He knew his name wouldn’t be called early in the 2016 draft, but Brice didn’t worry. Surely, he expected, teams had him on their board somewhere.
He ran 40 yards in 4.43 seconds at Louisiana Tech’s pro day. He jumped 42 inches. Athletically, Brice tested better than 2014 first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but nobody drafted him.
Even now, Brice said, he doesn’t know why.
“My play in college spoke for itself,” Brice said. “I let that happen, and if I went undrafted, I vowed to myself to show everyone I can play.”
Brice was atypical for a non-BCS team. Heavily recruited, his scholarship offers out of Ruston (La.) High included Nebraska, Ole Miss, Missouri and Oregon State. He chose Louisiana Tech not in the absence of bigger programs flooding his mailbox, but because campus was his backyard.
It didn’t stop him from hitting opponents with fury. The first play Baker ever coached Brice, his junior safety sent a message. The Bulldogs were at Oklahoma, and the Sooners dumped a screen pass into the flat.
Near the right sideline, Brice sent the tailback flying out of bounds with a shoulder shiver.
“Broke the kid’s facemask off,” Baker said.
His viciousness isn’t style over substance. Each blow, Baker said, makes a point. Brice tackles like an underdog might jab the heavyweight champion. He’s always playing with something to prove.
That edge, Baker believed, separated him from peers.
“A lot of kids,” Baker said, “if they’re highly recruited and they come to a ‘Group of Five’ school, some of them feel like the world was supposed to be given to them. He’s always had a different mentality than that. He still had a chip on his shoulder, and I think definitely at the NFL, being undrafted, there wasn’t even a ton of teams that called him to come try out. So it wasn’t like he had 32 teams beating down his door when the draft ended.
“So I think he definitely wants to prove the rest of the league wrong.”
Nothing, Brice knows, silences doubters like a trail of carnage.
He hasn’t always been this way. In youth league, Brice said, parents did not have to hide their children from him. But Brice learned early his secret to happiness in this sport, the key to unlocking that “unexplainable moment” when pure adrenaline rushes through veins and seeps out pores, comes after delivering devastation.
Brice hasn’t forgotten his first time. He was a sophomore cornerback at Ruston High. His opponent made the mistake of calling a sweep to his side.
The running back came barreling at him.
“And we connected,” Brice said. “I didn’t think about it. We just both hit each other, and he fell hard. Really hard. I got up, celebrated, and there’s been hits like that ever since.”
The results can be spectacular.
Cole Beasley, the Dallas Cowboys receiver, might wince every time he hears Brice’s name. Brice body-slammed him in last season’s NFC divisional playoff game, flipped Beasley’s heels over his head, and even though impact came after 15 yards on third-and-4, Brice howled at AT&T Stadium’s ceiling.
His best hit came in Atlanta. It defied physics, left position coach Darren Perry scratching his head. Quarterback Matt Ryan dumped a screen pass to Falcons running back Terron Ward. Brice planted his heels in front of the goal line and braced himself.
Ward had a 10-yard running start. Advantage, according to Newton’s law of inertia, was in his favor. Brice ripped science apart. When Ward hit him full speed, he was a crash dummy smashing into a wall.
Brice dropped him instantly at the half-yard line.
“It’s your will, really,” Brice said. “Honestly, you’ve just got to have a desire not to be beat on that play. He wanted to score. I wanted him not to score. So I guess my will, I just wanted it more. I gave my force and put my all into it, and didn’t care what happened. I was going to knock him back.”
Yes, Brice discusses tackles like Drago described beating an opponent. Brute strength. Force of will. He will break you.
He also analyzes collisions with an architect’s understanding of geometric shapes. There is an art behind this madness, inspiration behind his destruction. It’s not enough to simply hit hard, Brice said.
Max impact requires precision.
“He has an innate ability,” Baker said, “to time up hits perfectly. What I mean by that, he closes in full speed and he drops it into sixth gear and explodes to contact. Which, to me, it’s almost impossible to teach. You’ve either got it, or you don’t. And he does it as well as anybody.”
Brice is careful not to cross the line. His body isn’t a heat-seeking missile each play. Part of the balance, he said, is fundamental. Seek a knockout every time, Brice knows, and you’re bound to miss.
The other part is financial. These days, NFL rules dress receivers in bubble wrap. Undrafted, Brice is playing on a league-minimum $540,000 salary.
He never has been fined for a hit. Never even penalized.
“I don’t hunt the big hit,” Brice said. “If it happens, it happens. If not, so be it. When it does happen, I know you only have a couple opportunities in a game to make a hit like that. Because if you’re on it 24/7, you’re going to miss more than you connect.
“So whenever you feel the opportunity is right and the chance to connect, take the big hit. Whether it’s that crossing route or they see you one-on-one, just take it then.”
Brice’s selectivity might be most important. Baker’s one concern, he said, has always been whether any safety can keep playing this way. In football, no one is indestructible. Enough reckless abandon, too much disregard for safety, and the body breaks down.
Somebody forgot to tell Brice.
“You never want to take away a guy’s attribute,” Burnett said. “If that’s your game, you stick to it.”