The Packers moved up 28 spots in the draft to get Casey, which is something general manager Ted Thompson rarely does. Casey looks like he'll fit in well with the group of cornerbacks the Packers have. What are your thoughts on Casey's selection in the draft?
McGriff: Well, I tell you what, when I saw the Packers move up — and I've always had a lot of respect for the way the Packers draft guys and they do a tremendous job of keeping everything quiet and go get that guy on draft day — they moved up and got the right guy because Casey by far is the most instinctive player that I've coached in the secondary. He reminds me a lot of Kenny Phillips, the first-round draft pick that I coached at the University of Miami who's with the (New York) Giants. Casey and Kenny are identical. Now, Casey plays corner and Kenny plays safety, but what I think Green Bay did is they got a first-round guy in the second round.
Casey is a football junkie – not only does he love the game on the field and he plays every play, but he's going to get in the video room, he's going to study opponents. He's got an extremely high football IQ. He's one of those guys that's going to come in during the week and he's going to look at video, and say, ‘Coach, when they get in this formation, then you're going to see him run this route.' An unbelievably intelligent kid and he loves to play football. And he's a playmaker. And he's by far one of the best corners I've been around that tackles well. He's one of the few guys that has the numbers in the throw game where he has interceptions and pass breakups, but look at his tackles and tackles for loss. He's not afraid to stick his face in the fan to make a tackle.
And believe it or not, he's kind of a modest kid. But Casey's a very, very tough kid, a very physical corner. And he is so competitive. I tell you, he is so competitive that if he's playing marbles, he's going to try to beat you in marbles. I remember my first night at Vanderbilt was a recruiting night and you always try to get a gauge and figure out who you're getting ready to coach. So, I made the mistake of trying to challenge him in playing pool one night while the recruits are in town. Man, I think I beat him that first game, and, boy, I tell you what, after that, shoot, I could not beat Casey once. He is so competitive. And I think for the next week after he saw me, he wanted to play me over and over again, and I said, ‘I'm tired of you beating me.' So, he is so competitive. Green Bay got a great guy.
Did you see that competitiveness on the practice field every day?
McGriff: Oh, yeah. I saw that on the practice field, in the video room, and it carried over to the playing field. I mean, he didn't wait until game day to win. He wanted to beat the receivers every day in practice from one-on-ones, to seven-on-seven, to team drills. He competed in every phase. And for a senior, he would jump out there on scout team and special teams and he wanted to be one of those guys on kickoff return or kickoff. That's just how competitive Casey is. And I tell you what, the biggest mistake someone can make is just talking noise to him. Because then he takes it to another level.
Where did he make his biggest strides at Vanderbilt or was he pretty polished when you got there (McGriff coached just the 2011 season at Vanderbilt as the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator)?
McGriff: I think his biggest strides were, and we talked about this when I first came to Vanderbilt, was that he was out there playing the game and his technique and fundamentals were way off. And I'm a big guy, I'm one of those old-school guys, I like to coach that you got to be technique and fundamentally sound because in the fourth quarter when you get tired, that's what you got to cling on to because you're going to revert back to your training. So, Casey was really off with his technique and fundamentals. He struggled trying to back pedal. So, I think his biggest improvement came from his formation recognition and awareness and his technique and fundamentals.
Casey seems like he's ready to play in the NFL, but what challenges do you think he'll face?
McGriff: I just think that the biggest challenge might be, like any guy that goes to the upper level, is just the speed of the game because I think he's got the talent to match up against any receiver. I mean, he's technique and fundamentally sound and he has ball skills, he's a smart guy, and I think his only challenge — his biggest challenge — is how fast will he catch up with the speed of the game? Other than that, he's ready to play in the National Football League.
Can you think of any examples of how he used his intelligence and instincts on the field?
McGriff: There were several times in the games where we would have a coverage called, and they give a different formation, and I told him during the week, ‘Hey, if they give us this formation now, they're going to run a take off and out.' And we'd be in Cover 2, and we would tell, 'Hey, stay on No. 1, but see 2.' And you would see Casey come off of No. 1 and just burst to No. 2. I think he got a pick against, I want to say Arkansas. He dropped a couple picks against Arkansas, but you could see him come out of coverage and drive on the receiver, and I was standing on the sideline saying, ‘Casey, what the...!?' And I go, ‘No, no! Yes, yes!' Because he came out of coverage, and I said, ‘Casey, what did you see?' And he said, ‘Coach, they got in that split that we talked about all week. Oh, man, I saw the quarterback's eyes and I knew he was going to him.' There were examples over and over again where he would come out of coverage and he would go make a play and I would tell him all the time, ‘I don't want robots on the field, I want guys that are just going to go out and make plays.' And that's what Casey would do.
So would you allow the other defensive backs to play that way, too, or was it more so Casey because he proved to you that he could do things like that?
McGriff: I would allow all of them to do that once they prove they're instinctive and I can trust them. I knew early on, even after the first game against Elon, that Casey had the wherewithal because I'm pretty sure he had a pick in that game in almost a similar situation where he does a good job of what I call playing through the coverage and not doing exactly what the coverage is doing, but playing the game of football because it changes. Casey can see the changes coming by formation, by the quarterback's demeanor, and he'll play good coverage and go make a play. So, he would show me over and over in practice and he would come in and study film that I would trust him. And he would always communicate with me and by far was the most coachable kid I've ever seen.
You were at the University of Miami when Sam Shields transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback. Tell me about that.
McGriff: I had been talking to Sam, I tell you what, about two years before that happened. I said, ‘Sam, hey, you're just pedestrian at receiver. You're just another guy. But you're an NFL corner.' And he said, ‘Coach, you think so?' I said, ‘Yeah, you're wasting your time. You need to be over there with me playing corner.' And lo and behold, his senior year he said, ‘Coach, I want to make that transition and play corner.' And I saw the skill-set, I saw the work ethic, I saw the short-area quickness, and I saw the speed, and more than anything, I saw that Sam was hungry to play in the National Football League. I just saw that he was in the wrong position. I mean, kudos to him that he trusted what I was telling him and he came over and worked every day at improving his technique and fundamentals. So, I wasn't surprised when he got on the big stage that he was able to play corner.
So did you have to convince the other coaches to switch him to corner if you saw this years in advance?
McGriff: Well, the first thing was that the offensive guys didn't feel he was being productive at receiver. He came out of high school as a highly touted receiver and there was even some talk about sending Sam home. I said, ‘No, that kid can play defensive back.' So (Miami coach Randy) Shannon didn't want to move him because Sam was such a good kid. And so Sam played gunner on the punt team. And then Shannon said, ‘You know what, that kid may be a fit for defense.' And he said, ‘McGriff, you want him?' And I said, ‘Yeah, Coach, I think he's a great corner.' And so there was a little bit of convincing, but Sam did a great job of playing special teams to prove that he had some value someplace else and that supported what I was trying to explain to the other coaches that the kid could be a really good corner.
He's done pretty well in the NFL for being so raw initially, but how did he perform in the one year at cornerback at Miami that you had him?
McGriff: He did well with the respect that he was particularly making the transition in his senior year and not having lived life playing the game backwards as long as other guy's have. I thought maybe Sam was going to be a fifth-round draft pick because I knew he was going to test well in the short-area quickness. He had everything but experience. I thought he did well, though. If we didn't have him at corner his last year at Miami, we would've been in trouble because we had some injuries and Sam came in and played well, but based on the way he played at Miami, I thought, ‘Somebody will get this kid in training camp and he'll make a roster.' I was surprised that he started as a rookie, but I wasn't surprised that he would make a roster and he would get some playing time. But I did not think he'd be going to the Super Bowl as a starter his rookie year. But that's just a testimony to his hard work and how much he loves the game.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org