GREEN BAY – Joe Whitt did not correct himself right away.
The Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach – a straight-shooter if there ever was one – was talking about the competition that was heating up for the No. 2 cornerback position opposite Tramon Williams last week. With eight-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson having shifted to safety in the team’s base defense, the opening created was, in his opinion, bringing out the best in the three candidates for the job.
Whitt was talking about Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields and Davon House, who’d pulled ahead with consecutive days of standout play.
“I think they see, ‘OK, I can really be a starter.’ When Charles was there at that position – and he still moves around – (the thought was), ‘OK, I’m going to be a backup unless Charles or Tramon gets hurt.’ 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.”
And now, the fourth guy – rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward – is in first place.
With House having suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the preseason opener at San Diego and Shields having struggled even before injuring his elbow in practice, it was Hayward and not Bush who worked with the No. 1 defense on Saturday and Sunday in practice. With Shields’ availability still in question and House set to miss at least two to three weeks because of his shoulder injury, Hayward appears likely to get the starting nod for this week’s preseason game against Cleveland at Lambeau Field.
Not only that, but with House unlikely to be ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener, Shields’ pre-injury struggles and Bush not getting many first-team reps behind House and now Hayward, Hayward just might be the opening-day starter, too.
“(That) would mean a lot. Not too many people can come in and just start, especially at the corner spot,” Hayward said. “I feel I can start in this league. A lot of people said I couldn’t be a starter – (that) I’m more of a nickel person. I just want to come in and prove them wrong. They drafted me high, and when they draft you that high, they’ve got expectations for you, and I just want to live up to them
“I’m running with the 1s with House down, with Sam down, (so) I’ve got to live up to my opportunity, and when my opportunity comes, let’s take advantage of it. I’d been getting a lot of reps before (House) was out, as well, (but) not as much with the 1’s. It’s my opportunity and I’m going to try to make the best of it.”
If he does, he’ll become the first rookie cornerback to start for the Packers since third-round pick Mike McKenzie did so in 1999.
“I thought Casey did some really good things in the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Hayward’s performance against San Diego. “As a whole, he graded out very well, I was very pleased with what I saw, particularly in the secondary. I thought Casey got off to a good start.”
Now, he has to keep it going. Hayward’s next-door neighbor in the locker room is Williams, who has taken the impressive Hayward under his wing. During a week in which D.J. Smith has been promoted to the starting lineup at inside linebacker in the wake of Desmond Bishop’s apparent season-ending hamstring injury, Hayward and Williams have spent time talking about the importance of rising to such an occasion.
“It’s just like D.J. He prepared just like Bishop prepared, so he knows the defense,” Hayward said. “House’s down, Sam’s down — I’m pretty sure they’ll get their chances when they come back, but I’m trying to lock it up and secure it. If I can do that these next couple weeks and show the coaches that I know what I’m doing and not have mental errors, and they’ll get to see me with the 1’s and see how I communicate and how I play with the 1’s, then I think they may give me a shot.”
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.