GREEN BAY – If there is one sure way to incur the wrath of Aaron Rodgers, it is with mental mistakes. James Starks can attest.
But if you are a skill-position player on the Green Bay Packers’ offense and want to get on the reigning NFL MVP’s good side, show him that you know your assignment, won’t make a mental mistake and understand the offense like, well, a quarterback.
That would explain Rodgers’ affinity for Diondre Borel – and why, even before fellow first-year wide receiver Tori Gurley’s groin injury, Borel was running ahead of all other young receivers in the training-camp chase for a No. 6 wide receiver spot – even though that spot might not be there when the 53-man roster is set on Sept. 2.
“I think Diondre has made as big a jump as anybody from Year 1 to 2. He really made the most of his reps on the scout team last year,” Rodgers said. “He’s a great teammate, a hard worker and he really understands the game. I think he has the luxury of being a quarterback in college, so he sees the game through a quarterback’s eyes, and that gives him a slight advantage over guys he’s competing with because he understands timing and progression maybe a little bit quicker than some of those other guys.”
Wanting to play as a Utah State true freshman in 2007, Borel – who’d been recruited as a quarterback – volunteered to play wide receiver for the Aggies. While he only caught one pass, it got him on the field.
“I didn’t play much, but they promised me I would play quarterback again the next year,” Borel said.
That’s exactly what happened, as he played quarterback his final three seasons, throwing for 1,705 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2008; 2,885 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2009; and 2,108 yards with eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2010.
But given his lack of size – the Packers list him at 6-foot and 199 pounds, even though he doesn’t appear to be either – it was clear to NFL scouts that he wouldn’t be a quarterback prospect. Scouts advised him to run routes at his on-campus workout, but Borel was already ahead of them.
“I already knew I would have to run routes. So I was already doing that,” Borel said. “I had an idea.”
What he didn’t have any idea about was how much his quarterback background would pay off. Because of the lockout, players like Borel who went undrafted in the spring of 2011 found themselves unable to sign with teams until the lockout ended. That meant Borel and other undrafted rookies had to sign their deals with their new teams and dive right into training camp, without ever having seen their new team’s playbook.
For Borel, his ability to process large amounts of information and see the offense globally would pay off. But early on, it was a detriment.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, since I hadn’t played the (receiver) position (at the NFL level),” Borel said. “It was hard during training camp. When I first started looking at plays, I was looking at what everybody was doing, (because) I’m so used to doing that. I was trying to pay attention to everything. So it was a little harder for me.”
Once he focused in on receiver, Borel, who was released at the end of camp and immediately signed to the practice squad, had the complex offense down pat by late in the regular season. About the same time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came calling with an offer to join their 53-man roster. But like Gurley, who had a similar offer from the Minnesota Vikings, Borel opted to stay with the Packers, who sweetened the deal by paying him like he was on the 53-man roster, just as they did with Gurley.
That financial commitment led many to assume both players were ticketed for roster spots this season, but while the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Gurley has appealing size, it’s been Borel who has stepped up his game.
“I try not to worry about it. Anything can happen,” Borel said. “I just try to stay humble, just do my job. I don’t really worry about the numbers.”
Now, with Gurley hampered by the groin injury, Borel has impressed – especially on Sunday night, when he got extended work with the No. 1 offense.
“He’s that example that you guys usually ask me about: Who’s making a jump from Year 1 to Year 2. Diondre’s definitely one of those guys,” McCarthy said on Sunday night. “He’s fighting for a spot on our football team. He has a lot of value, whether it’s special teams and his diversity, playing a number of different positions. He’s getting better. He’s stronger. That’s really the biggest jump in my mind that he had to make from last year to this year was in the weight room. He’s done that. He’s doing a very good job, and you see it carrying over to the field. He’s playing more physical. I think he’s exceptional in creating separation. I'm very happy with his progress.”
On Monday night, McCarthy added: “You can see his athletic ability and instincts, which I think are a big strength of his. Diondre is a very instinctive player, smart player. His time playing quarterback definitely has helped him in his transition. He sees the big picture and is doing a really good job working on the fundamentals and the techniques of his position. He’s making strides.”
Borel can make further strides with a strong performance on Thursday night in the Packers’ preseason opener at San Diego, where he figures to see extended playing time with the reserves. He clearly was on the same page on Sunday night with No. 2 quarterback Graham Harrell, who knows he can count on Borel to be where he’s supposed to on each play.
“I’m just trying to work on the little things. I still have a lot to work on as a receiver. I just try to know the plays so the coaches aren’t yelling at me,” Borel said. “It helps a lot, because if you’re a former quarterback playing receiver, I feel like you know what the quarterback wants. You’ve played the position, you know what it’s like to be under pressure, to look at hot (reads), how to time it up whether it’s faster or slower on routes.
“I’m playing faster now. It’s different this year because we wouldn’t get a lot of plays – we’d be running the scout cards – last year, so watching the film would be different because you’re not really running the routes in our offense. Now, I don’t even have to think when I’m out 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.