GREEN BAY – The most compelling competition of the first week of training camp is far from over. In fact, it might just be getting good.
Entering the Green Bay Packers’ seventh camp under coach Mike McCarthy, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt knew someone would need to emerge from among his group.
Then, lo and behold, Charles Woodson shifts to safety in the base defense, and suddenly there is a starting cornerback job available. While the No. 3 cornerback had always been viewed by the coaches as a starter, this was different.
“I think they see, ‘OK, I can really be a starter.’ When Charles was there at that position – and he still moves around – (their thought was), ‘OK, I’m going ot be a backup unless Charles or Tramon gets hurt,’” Whitt said. “Well, now, who’s going to be the starter? Who’s going to be the driver, and not just riding along? There’s really three guys that are fighting for that. Four guys, maybe, but we’ll see.”
From incumbent No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields, who’d backslid in his second NFL season; to Jarrett Bush, the special teams maven who’d been inconsistent as a cover man going back to when he first won the nickel job in 2007; to second-year man Davon House, who’d proclaimed his rookie season a “wasted year” after playing only two games; to rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward – Whitt says the competition remains wide open.
As well as House has performed over the past three days of practice – and no one, including Whitt, denies that House has been terrific – Whitt said Wednesday afternoon that Bush will open practice Thursday night at that spot with the No. 1 base, nickel and dime defenses.
“It’s funny, I really shouldn’t read what everybody writes, but I’m just rotating guys, all right?” Whitt said, referring to lengthy stories written about both House and Hayward early in camp. “You’ll see a new starting corner tomorrow. I’m just rotating guys. And then, when we get into the practice, whoever’s practicing better will get more reps.
“I don’t know who’s going to be that guy. And I’m trying to get everybody a fair shot to be that guy. But it’s so early on right now. When we get into the Family Night scrimmage and San Diego and then the next preseason game, it’ll start to divine itself. Because it really doesn’t matter out here until we get under the lights and we get into a game atmosphere. I wouldn’t feed too much into who lines up where until we get under those lights.”
That said, Whitt made it clear that House had earned his spot with the No. 1 defenses on Monday and Tuesday with his elevated play.
“That was on merit, because Davon has practiced well, but it’s not necessarily going to be there tomorrow. Because it’s an open competition,” Whitt said. “He’s had a good last three days. Been very pleased with him. His first two days I wasn’t really pleased with, but his last three he’s really, really come along.”
When camp opened last Thursday, Bush was the cornerback opposite Tramon Williams when Woodson would shift to safety in the base defense. When the nickel defense went in, Woodson moved to the slot and safety M.D. Jennings replaced him at safety. And when the unit went to its dime personnel group, Shields was the fourth cornerback.
Then Shields had a catastrophic day of practice and watched House and Hayward step into the breach. On Monday, House had leapfrogged over both Shields and Bush into the starting lineup.
And while House could still wind up there, he has not sewn up the spot.
“’JB’ did nothing wrong. Davon’s play put him there, but JB is the guy who’s there,” Whitt said. “And JB will be right back there tomorrow.”
Bush said he didn’t let House’s promotion bother him, knowing he’d get another crack at working with the starters sooner or later.
“It’s still competition. It’s all performance-based,” Bush said. “I think all the DBs are welcomed into that competition. We have to take it for what it is. I’m looking forward to my opportunities – especially Family Night and the preseason games – to show what I can do. I do have experience, so I’m definitely going to take full advantage of that and play well during those games.
“I know I can play. I know I can play fast, and I can play well. I’m only going to get better. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I just have to wait for my opportunity – and I will get the opportunity. I definitely want to up my role on this team. I’m a competitor. My time will come.”
When Shields’ time will come is unclear. His fall from grace began late last season, when his poor tackling opened the door for Bush to replace him in the nickel defense on early downs/possible running downs in the playoff loss to the New York Giants. Bush pushed further ahead of Shields in organized team activity practices and minicamp, and when camp opened, he was clearly still ahead.
Then Shields looked in the first few practices and looked nothing like the player he’d been as a rookie in 2010. Still, he professed confidence.
“It’s not messing up my head or anything. That’s their decision, the coaches’ decision. That’s what they made. It’s just a big competition to me,” Shields said. “Every year, it’s going to be a competition. They put their guys, whoever they got, (ahead of me). You just have to keep doing your part.”
According to Whitt, Shields has done that in the past three practices and is on the upswing.
“He slid down initially but he’s steadily the last three days gone right back up. He’s had three good practices in a row,” Whitt said. “He’s being physical, he’s covering. He had one real rough day, but other than that, I’ve been pleased with where he’s going.”
One area where Whitt has been particularly pleased with Shields has been in the newly instituted tackling drills. Looking at times like not just an unable tackler but an unwilling one last year, the converted wide receiver has responded to Whitt’s edict to get physical – “They’ll do it or they won’t play,” Whitt said – and remains in the mix as a result.
“I don’t want to say I did that bad (last season). A lot of people make it seem like I was terrible. I don’t think I did that bad,” Shields said. “Just certain points, like the tackling part – now, I can say that. I need to work on that. A lot of people saw that I need to tackle better. But that’s going to come.
“I don’t want excuses, but that’s what it is. I played offense my whole life. I’m still learning, I’m still young. Hey, it’s going to get better. I’m telling you.”
Shields’ tackling – as well as all the other cornerbacks’ – can’t help but get better given the drill work Whitt is putting them through. He calls them “college drills” not only because he used some of them as a college coach himself, but because he got some of from his father, Joe Whitt Sr., who spent 25 years as Auburn’s linebackers and defensive line coach. From having cornerbacks hit blocking sleds and tackling bags to colliding in the Whitt-invented “Come To Jesus” drill, the group has gotten plenty of work in the first week.
“They’re drills I used to do every day in college, but when I got into the NFL, when I got to Atlanta, I was told, ‘These guys won’t do it,’” Whitt said. “The way we performed last year, well, they will do it or they won’t play.
“To a man, everybody’s putting their nose in there. I’m really pleased with Sam’s physicality. He’s really changed. He’s really putting his nose in there.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.