Why Jaire Alexander could be 'special corner' for Packers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – Near the end zone at AT&T Stadium, an anxious family gathered last week in Arlington, Texas with friends at an oversized, round table. They chattered inside the green room, envisioning a future full of sparkling possibilities. Like so many families surrounding them, Jaire Alexander’s guests had dreamed about this night. Yet it still seemed surreal, impossible to imagine a few years ago.

Jaire Alexander poses for a photo on the red carpert before the 2018 NFL draft.

Not a single power-conference school inside Alexander’s home state of North Carolina offered him a scholarship. He was too slow to play wide receiver, too short for cornerback. Or maybe it was the reverse. Nobody around Alexander can pinpoint what recruiters missed exactly – how they could possibly overlook the kid nicknamed “Too Easy” churning highlights every Friday night across Charlotte – only that he internalized each slight, fueling him to work smarter, longer, harder, until he took his anger out on overmatched receivers.

Inside Jerry’s World, Willie Crite Jr. traced those unlikely steps from obscurity to first round. Alexander’s high school defensive backs coach didn’t see this rise coming, either. “That’s unimaginable, really,” he said. But Crite learned something about Alexander long ago.

There’s no limit to what he can achieve.

Speed: 4.3

The making of Jaire Alexander, the Green Bay Packers' first-round cornerback, began on a track at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, a 20,000-resident town about 10 miles southwest of Charlotte. There were no football pads, no helmet. Just starter’s blocks.

Alexander’s proverbial “play speed” flashed every time he stepped onto a field. It didn’t translate to the stopwatch. As a junior, Alexander consistently ran 40 yards in 4.7 seconds. He had enough burst to break long punt returns, but coverage routinely caught him.

“It was the funniest thing,” Crite said. “I saw him pulling away from people, but I could hear him run. Because he ran flat-footed and heavy, not light on his toes. I saw highlights from his sophomore year where he would break a punt return, but he didn’t have that long speed where he could take it all the way to the house. Or he’d break a kickoff return, and he’d get caught at like the 30- or 25-yard line.

“So it was just learning the technique of running. A lot of people don’t realize, you really do have to learn how to run.”

Jaire Alexander (right) shares a celebratory moment with former high school position coach Willie Crite Jr. at the 2018 NFL draft.

Crite knew major colleges weren’t risking a scholarship on an undersized recruit with 4.7 speed, so he suggested Alexander run track. Initially hesitant – “just the competitor in him,” Crite said, “he didn’t want to get beat” – Alexander finally relented.

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One look at Alexander’s running technique, and Rocky River track coach Antoine Sidberry had a list of mechanical issues to fix. “Really, had to teach him how to run,” Sidberry said. Alexander had a false step off the start line, shifting his weight to his back foot before moving forward. He had a side-stepping stride. His arms were almost motionless through his first steps, then crossed his body. There was no knee drive, no explosion.

“He ran like a football player,” Sidberry said, “not a runner.”

Sidberry struggles to count all the hours Alexander spent crafting a proper running style. Each day after practice, Sidberry explained, Alexander stayed a half hour to 45 minutes working on his start. He broke down his technique into individual components, from lifting his knees to dropping his foot beneath his hip.

“You don’t want to hit with your heels,” Sidberry would tell him. “I use the Flintstones for example. How do the Flintstones stop their car? With the heels on their feet. So for a sprinter, if you hit with your heel first, you’re actually putting on the brakes.”

The drills chiseled tenths of seconds off his 40-yard dash. At a college camp before his senior season, Alexander ran 4.43. His time only continued to drop at Louisville. Few competitions were more anticipated on campus than Alexander running the 40 dash against Heisman Trophy quarterback Lamar Jackson, himself one of college football’s fastest players.

“It would be a photo finish,” former Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.

He was right. At spring practices last year, Louisville announced Jackson ran 40 yards in 4.34 seconds. Alexander edged him at 4.32.

Jaire Alexander poses for a photo with Louisville teammate Lamar Jackson at the 2018 NFL draft before the two were selected in the first-round by the Packers and Ravens.

Ball skills: Multiple threat

Alexander was a quiet, unassuming kid when he transferred from West Charlotte to Rocky River High. A “scrawny sophomore” trying to find his way, head coach Jason Fowler remembers. On this, Alexander was absolutely certain: He was a playmaker.

His best position was receiver, he told coaches, not corner.

Problem was, Alexander wasn’t tall enough. Barely scraping 5-foot-10, he needed a few inches to be recruited as a college receiver. “Those are a dime a dozen,” Fowler said. Plus, Rocky River needed depth in its secondary.

Initially, Fowler expected Alexander would play safety, maybe No. 3 cornerback in nickel. When a corner ahead of him on the depth chart became academically ineligible, Alexander was promoted to starter.

“With his athleticism and his ball skills,” Fowler said, “being able to come out of the backfield and drive at the ball and everything, we felt he would be able to be recruited at a higher level playing defense than playing offense.”

Alexander never resisted the move, Crite said. Instead, Crite noticed Alexander staying later and later after practice, just as he did in track. Eventually, he demanded fellow defensive backs also linger to do more drills.

It didn’t take long to validate his position change. Alexander mostly played man coverage off the line of scrimmage or zone as a junior, but he switched to press-man coverage as a senior. “I think one of the reasons he’s one of the most complete corners in the draft,” Crite said, “is because of the way I had to bring him along. He had a foundation in both.” No matter the coverage, Alexander was right about one thing: He was a playmaker.

Alexander had seven interceptions as a junior, four as a senior. Soon, he earned a nickname. “Too Easy,” Crite said. He was a weekly highlight reel, dodging and weaving and juking across the field, outrunning everyone. After mostly playing defense as a junior, Fowler let Alexander go both ways as a senior. In roughly two-thirds of Rocky River’s offensive snaps, Fowler said, Alexander had 76 catches for 1,229 yards and 20 touchdowns.

“He’s electric, man,” Fowler said, chuckling.

Alexander didn’t have to play receiver to get the football. As a punt returner, he was given an open field to make plays. In 32 punt returns at Rocky River, Alexander averaged 16.3 yards. He had returns of at least 65 yards in both seasons.

Naturally, Alexander wanted to continue fielding punts at Louisville, but freshmen rarely are exposed to such unforgiving pressure. Alexander was among 10 candidates vying for the job in his first season, but cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley – who doubled instructing punt returners – said their choice was easy. Good thing, too. Among the biggest plays of Alexander’s college career was a 69-yard punt return touchdown sparking a blowout victory over No. 2-ranked Florida State.

Louisville Cardinals cornerback Jaire Alexander (10) runs the ball against Purdue Boilermakers cornerback Mike Little (10) during a punt return during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“The guy is a natural,” Buckley said. “One of the rules that you have is you have to be able to field the ball, and he was a natural guy that fielded. He wanted it. He was comfortable. When you add what he can do after he fielded it, it became a clear choice.

“It was an open competition, so I had to let it go on for another week. After the first five – really, after the first one or two – it was like, ‘OK, this is our guy.’”

Chip on his shoulder: 5-10 1/4

Driving into a high school parking lot deep inside Georgia, Buckley shouted out the window to his next target. “This is coach Buck!” he said, introducing himself. He’s on the recruiting trail in early May, spring practices in the rearview mirror. Buckley, two years removed from coaching Alexander at Louisville, has since moved to the SEC, but Mississippi State’s cornerbacks coach has one goal in mind.

“I’m trying to find the next Jaire Alexander,” he said.

Unlike Alexander, Buckley never dealt with obscurity. The first player Ron Wolf drafted in Green Bay, Buckley was the fifth overall pick coming out of Florida State in 1992. Standing 5-9, he certainly knows what it is to be overlooked.

Buckley never sniffed a Pro Bowl with the Packers. He was gone after three seasons, though he had 10 interceptions with his original NFL team. After he left, Wolf implemented a rule seldom broken in the past 25 years: The Packers wouldn’t draft a cornerback under 5-10 1/2.

Though he’s just a quarter inch under the threshold, Alexander is a rare exception. Buckley, unsurprisingly, doesn’t want to hear about minimum heights. He played 14 seasons in the NFL, and his 50 career interceptions are nothing to scoff at. Buckley said he doesn’t see why Alexander – who snared seven interceptions at Louisville – can’t have a long, successful career.

“That’s one of those things that I always dealt with,” Buckley said. “Jaire is under 5-11, he’s 195 pounds now, but he runs the 40 quick as anybody, fast as anybody, can outjump anybody. So when you combine that with the intelligence and the work ethic, I don’t care how big you are.

“I think he’ll be a special corner.”

Despite his stature, Alexander mostly played on the perimeter at Louisville. General manager Brian Gutekunst said the Packers also plan to continue giving Alexander snaps on the perimeter, instead of exclusively moving him inside to the slot. Grantham, now defensive coordinator at Florida, doesn’t doubt Alexander can hold up outside.

He said Alexander plays larger than his height and, at almost 200 pounds, has enough size and strength to match against bigger, physical receivers.

“He’s tall enough,” Grantham said, “to play outside in the National Football League, and with his arm length (31 1/8 inches), he’s going to play a little bigger than the 5-10 1/4. Now you’re talking about a 5-11 guy, and that’s plenty tall enough.”

Alexander’s athleticism, Grantham said, fits in a league where defensive backs aren’t allowed to touch receivers more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. His ability to change direction (6.71-second 3-cone), accelerate and bend his body could facilitate a move to the slot, where Grantham believes Alexander can also line up.

Grantham called Alexander the “prototype” for a modern NFL corner because he’s strong enough to play near the line of scrimmage, but athletic enough to stay within the no-contact rules past 5 yards.

Others, pointing to his height, will no doubt disagree. Just more doubters for Alexander to prove wrong. The slights keep coming, even when unexpected.

Work ethic: no off days

Back in Jerry’s World last week, Crite counted the minutes as he watched cameramen scurry from table to table. It was happening again; he could feel it. Beside them, Saquon Barkley’s table cleared out hours earlier. Denzel Ward, the top-drafted cornerback, saw his night end when the Cleveland Browns took him No. 4. Alexander? He was overlooked.

Even as analysts mentioned defensive prospects sliding down the board, his name wasn’t among them.

“He’ll play with that chip on his shoulder,” Fowler said, “and prove to everybody. I guarantee he’s thinking right now, ‘Why was I the second corner taken? I should’ve been first.’ I guarantee he’s thinking that right now in his mind, and he’s going to work to go out there and show everybody why he should’ve been the first corner.”

When the Packers were on the clock at No. 14 overall, Crite had a hunch. He’d seen the latest mock drafts, many projecting Alexander to the Packers. Even more, the night started with a premonition. Walking the red carpet, prospects stopped to spin a wheel-of-fortune-style disk with different NFL teams. Alexander, Crite said, landed on the Packers.

Their table experienced the draft-night rollercoaster in real time. After the Packers traded back in the first round, their mood deflated. It didn’t last long. When the Packers swapped first-round picks with the Seattle Seahawks, Alexander, dressed in a Cardinal red, three-piece suit, glanced at his mom, Tawanda. Crite looked over at Alexander’s father, Earl. “This is it,” he mouthed. Earl nodded in anticipation.

Shortly after 10 p.m., three hours after the draft began, commissioner Roger Goodell strode to the podium and announced the Packers selected Alexander with the 18th overall pick. His wait was over. The Packers drafted Alexander to be foundational to their future, validation he’s long sought.

Jaire Alexander poses for a photo with family and friends at the 2018 NFL draft after being selected by the Packers as the No. 18 overall pick.

“If you would’ve seen him dancing back stage taking pictures, just that sigh of relief,” Crite said, “it was great to watch. You should’ve seen him running around that field with joy and with excitement.”

A first-round pick might take this week to catch his breath, enjoy a couple days rest before rookie orientation, but Alexander kept working. Crite said he was in the Rocky River weight room Monday, working out. Alexander stopped by a spring practice before leaving for Green Bay, encouraging current players.

Alexander made it this far. He’s not finished. Now, the kid from Mint Hill gets a chance to show doubters what they missed all along.

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