GREEN BAY – Back in college, as fellow students around the University of Michigan campus tracked how they could reach their professional aspirations, learning from the best in their chosen field, Rashan Gary was no different.
Gary, the Green Bay Packers' first-round rookie and formerly the nation’s top high school recruit, said he spent much of his free time dissecting film from two defenders in particular: Julius Peppers and Aaron Donald. But he didn’t look at Peppers’ tape with the Carolina Panthers or Donald’s film with the Los Angeles Rams.
No, Gary went all the way back to their college days, pulling Peppers’ film at the University of North Carolina and Donald’s from the University of Pittsburgh.
“I did that just to see the growth,” Gary said. “It wasn’t that I would just watch it to get moves from that. I was watching it to see his growth as a player. You see what they’re doing to change their body. You see how they love the game, watching film. If an elite player like that is out there like this, studying like this, I want to be great. So why not look at a player that’s on his way to being great right now? So that’s the way I look at everything.”
It’s much too soon to know if Gary will be great, but the Packers have to be pleased with their top rookie’s start. Gary spent years preparing to be an NFL player. Through two days in pads, he has certainly looked the part.
One play Sunday was particularly reminiscent of the type of athleticism Peppers showed in his career, the rare combination of size and speed. Gary rushed unblocked up the A gap for what would have been a crushing sack if not for the quarterback’s red, no-touch jersey. Gary looked more like a safety than a defensive lineman, flashing the 4.58 40 speed he ran at the NFL scouting combine in February.
“That was a great play,” coach Matt LaFleur said after Sunday’s practice. “There was a stunt up front where he came screaming free right up the A gap, which I don’t think any of the quarterbacks are going to like.”
Gary’s athleticism wasn’t the only impressive part of the play. Perhaps more indicative of how his transition to the league is going, the rookie showed he’s picking up defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system well.
Initially, Gary was supposed to drop into coverage. He said his responsibility was the seam flat, but no receiver was in the area. Linebacker Blake Martinez gave Gary an audible before the snap, telling him to stunt underneath to the A gap.
When Gary stunted, he ran like he was shot out of a cannon.
“That’s how it is in the playbook,” Gary said. “So when you have a play drawn up perfectly, and it happens perfectly, it’s like, ‘OK, yeah.’ And everybody gets hyped up for it.”
It wasn’t Gary’s only display of athleticism. The rookie is also 4-1 in one-on-one drills against offensive linemen. On Sunday, he beat tackle Yosh Nijman with a speed move outside and, more impressively, beat starting left guard Lane Taylor with a power move inside.
“I feel like I can do it all,” Gary said. “I’ve got power, speed and now it’s about me just using moves out there.”
Gary has impressed enough to increase his first-team reps the past couple days. The question is whether he can translate his work on the practice field into games.
That Gary has shown rare athleticism shouldn’t be a surprise. He has always tested well as an athlete. The Packers would like to see it turn into production.
That’s the next step for the rookie.
“We’ll see once we get to the game action,” LaFleur said, “but he’s done a lot of nice things. The one thing that I really like that he’s shown is just the effort that he plays with. The way we define that is, you see a change of speed, a burst, then to max speed and then the finish. He’s had some good clips to show to the team.”
Cole Madison relishes return to wearing pads
Cole Madison raised his eyebrows once he realized that this past weekend was the first time he had put on shoulder pads and hit anyone on a football field since the week of Jan. 22, 2018, at the Senior Bowl.
“It’s a blessing, especially for me,” the Packers’ first-year interior lineman said. “It’s been a while. But it’s no excuse. It’s part of the game, wearing your pads, but I was really excited. Took a couple plays to get back into it, but it’s great banging heads again.”
After being drafted by the Packers out of Washington State that April and participating in the rookie mini-camp, Madison elected to take time away from the game to work on his mental health. He returned to the Packers this April for workouts, though padded work is always different.
“The thing is just playing fast,” Madison said. “You can’t use shoulder pads as an excuse to not play fast. You gotta play physical, obviously. Just continuing playing like that. The big thing in this league is everyone’s fast. You’ve got to be on top of every step, every technique right because if you don’t do it right you’re going to get beat and it’s going to get shown.”
On Sunday, the first day of full pads for the team, Madison “won” his one-on-one drills with defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster.
“For the individual matchup I’m always critical of myself and a definite area of improvement I need is in pass rush. Saying that – Cole is picking it back up real easily,” Lancaster said. “Obviously it’s going to be hard at first. There’s rough patches here and there but I’m excited for the guy. Having a year off like that and coming back and doing this, the first time in pads since college? It’s pretty awesome to see where he is despite that fact.”
It’s about team
In the old West Coast system, teams often practiced without offensive and defensive linemen in 7-on-7 drills aimed at sharpening the edges of every passing play.
It was a drill Mike Holmgren, Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy employed, although in recent years, McCarthy used less and less of it. It gave the offense a chance to see the play as it should be run when the expected coverage is called.
LaFleur doesn’t use it at all. When defense goes against offense, it's always 11-on-11 because rarely does the play look exactly the way it’s drawn on paper when there’s pass rush involved. He wants his quarterbacks to get used to the direction the play might take in a game.
“I just think for me, that’s real football when you’re having 11-on-11,” LaFleur said. “The 7-on-7 drills, they’re good in terms of trying to teach the true rhythm of a ball, but the pass rush in this league is real, and you’ve got to get guys accustomed to having bodies around them and being uncomfortable, and then just that ability to manipulate the pocket to buy some time.
“I think you just can’t replicate that in a 7-on-7 drill. So, I would prefer every period be a team pass or just a team 11-on-11 of some sort, but I’m also mindful that big guys got to get their individual, one-on-one work as well.”
Let the music play
Something new players and fans have had to get used to during LaFleur’s camp is the non-stop music blasting from the speakers on the sidelines from the start of practice to the finish.
It can sometimes feel like you’re inside a dance club.
LaFleur said the music, which leans heavily toward hip hop but also includes pop, metal, grunge and R&B, serves more than as a replacement for game-day crowd noise.
“When we get into the season, especially when we know we’re going into a loud environment, we’ll really crank it up,” LaFleur said. “Honestly, the music to me – I want energy out there. I want our guys to be into practice. I think that’s the mentality.
“Shoot, I even think about myself sometimes. When I’m working in the office, I think that guys stay more into it when there’s some of that background music going on.”