GREEN BAY – It’s been the competition of training camp so far for the Green Bay Packers: Who will line up opposite Tramon Williams at cornerback now that Charles Woodson is officially listed as a safety?
There certainly are plenty of candidates, from 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House, who has earned a surprising number of first-team reps with a strong start; to rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward; to Sam Shields, who would have been the incumbent No. 3 cornerback had he not ceded that spot on early downs / likely running plays in the playoff loss to the New York Giants because of his poor tackling.
And then, there is Jarrett Bush.
Take your pick of adjectives to describe Bush: Tough. Hard-hitting. Punishing. Resilient. They’re all words you wouldn’t pick to describe a Packers defense that in 2011 finished in the bottom half of the league in forced fumbles and sacks, while giving up the most passing yards in NFL history.
Nevertheless, the 28-year-old Bush has been a lightning rod among fans, fairly or unfairly, during his six years in Green Bay. His coverage skills have been called into question throughout his career, something that head coach Mike McCarthy says may have been a result of Bush being spread too thin between his special-teams work and shuffling positions (safety, cornerback, slot corner) on defense.
“I think it’s important to give Jarrett an opportunity to focus in on a position or two,” McCarthy said. “I think that was a mistake that I made with him in the past. I’ve tried to do too much with him.”
But Bush’s emergence as a starting corner this offseason and during much of camp is as much about the coaches believing he’s improved his coverage skills as it is about his attitude. He loves to hit. At least three times during the Packers first practice in pads last week, a receiver caught the ball and was promptly knocked to the ground by Bush.
“That's just me in action,” Bush said. “I just get a little revved up. (The) first day in pads, I just tried to make my mark. This is what I'm known for, it's who I am. It's my bloodline."
And it’s what the Packers are looking for after an atrocious year last year in the tackling department.
“The guys who are going to tackle will be out there. The guys who won’t will watch,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said sternly.
Bush spent all of organized team activity practices working with the first-team defense, paired with Williams as the two corners in the team’s 3-4 base defense. He admits this is the best chance he’s had to be a starter in Green Bay.
“I believe so,” Bush said. “I've just got to keep playing day-in and day-out, consistently, and keep proving that I'm a starter on this team. I feel very confident I'll do that."
Bush’s confidence is born from his resilience. The tough times he experienced earlier in his career weren’t enough to shake him from the path he’d set.
“It’s my mind and my heart,” said Bush. “You always keep your goals, and you always keep working and striving toward those goals. Sometimes, people get distracted, whether it be adversity or … you get scrutinized a little bit, but you can’t lose focus. That’s what happens sometimes. For me, I had a good upbringing, I had a lot of good coaches to keep me mentally strong, tough, and I’ve been able to do that…I can’t really put a bead on it, but a lot of things happen for a reason and I just keep working hard and I always try to get better. I feel like if you always keep doing that, no matter what, good things will happen.”
Bush has gotten to this career crossroads by improving significantly on special teams from his early years, becoming Green Bay’s ace in that phase of the game. He believes his coverage skills have gotten better now that he understands how offenses are trying to attack a defense.
That he would re-sign with the Packers – despite free-agent visits to the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Jets – shows how Bush feels about his time with the Packers. McCarthy calls him “clearly one of (my) favorites” because “you definitely get everything that he can possibly give you,” and there’s a reason for that.
“If you cut my heart open, it’s going to bleed green and gold,” Bush said. “I’m Green Bay for life. That’s just the way I feel. I feel like I have a home here.”
Nothing is set in stone for Bush. After spending the first four days of training camp with the starters, Bush was bumped to the second team in favor of House. But he was back at his starting spot during Thursday’s practice and the Family Night scrimmage on Friday. And though the unofficial depth chart released on Saturday lists him as the starter, he knows it’s way too early for any spot to be guaranteed.
“You can always get better,” Bush said. “I always try to be a student of the game. I can almost speak for every player, in that, every player can work on something in their game. ... Nothing's perfect, but you always try to work for that perfection. I guess that's why I call myself a perfectionist because I'm always trying to get better in all aspects, whether it be my feet, trying to get them in the right place, or my hands in my press technique, trying to get hands on receivers. Nothing's going to be perfect, but you always try to strive for that.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.