Longest of Long Shots

Curenski Gilleylen, an all-state playmaker in Texas, showed immense promise as a receiver during his sophomore season at Nebraska. Then he fell off the face of the football earth, languishing on the bench after a position change. Through it all, he never doubted this moment would come.

The Green Bay Packers will take 90 players to training camp.

Of those, 53 will make the final roster, eight will wind up on the practice squad and two will start the season serving NFL suspensions. That leaves 27 players — 30 percent — whose dreams will be dashed. For many, their football careers will be over. It will be time to look for a "real job."

The longest of long shots heading into training camp is receiver Curenski Gilleylen. That he's a member of the deepest position group on the team almost goes without saying. Adding to the challenge, Gilleylen didn't play receiver at Nebraska last season. In fact, he barely played at all. Moved to running back, Gilleylen never touched the ball during his final year as a Cornhusker.

"Last year was a crazy situation," he told Packer Report last week. "At the beginning of spring ball last year, I was playing receiver but they moved me to running back. At the beginning of the summer, they didn't know if they were going to bring me to fall camp. I got slotted with the third group and I just kept plugging away."

His hopes of ending his career with a bang and his dreams of playing in the NFL were sinking fast. His outlook on life, however, never wavered.

There were weeks when he wasn't on the traveling roster. That didn't stop him from attending the Friday meetings that weren't mandatory for the players not making the road trip. One of those Fridays was before a game at Wyoming. After the team arrived in Wyoming, there was a Friday night chapel service led by running backs coach Ron Brown.

"Our chapel service was on unselfishness and serving, and washing each other's feet," Brown told the Lincoln Journal Star in December. "I asked the guys, ‘OK, guys, in our room, Who's been that guy?' And they'd already seen Curenski get up early and come to the practice session and not get on the plane.

"I looked up and I saw Rex (Burkhead) and I saw Tyler (Legate, the starting running backs), and I saw tears streaming down their faces. And I couldn't hold it in because we realized that's the example we're talking about."

Gilleylen played in just one game all season, the bowl game against Michigan State.

"I didn't think I was a bad football player but it seemed like that sometimes," Gilleylen said. "It wasn't anything that I did. I tried my best every day. It was definitely a struggle to wake up every day and not practice, and to feel like I can contribute and not to be put in a position to (contribute) was rough."

Viewed from the prism of the last two years — he didn't catch a pass as a receiver in seven games during an injury-plagued junior campaign — it's a surprise to see Gilleylen getting a shot in the NFL. Gilleylen, however, is not surprised. After redshirting as a freshman in 2007 and playing sparingly in 2008, Gilleylen looked like a breakout performer in 2009, when he finished with 17 catches for 302 yards, with his 17.8-yard average ranking second on the team.

"I was a main focus on the offense, so I felt like I could do it," Gilleylen said. "I knew I could contribute. I didn't feel like I got any worse. I felt like I actually got better."

After the season, Gilleylen worked out at running back and wide receiver, at the urging of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, a former Packers assistant. He went undrafted and unsigned but earned a tryout at the Packers' rookie camp. He made a good enough impression to get signed. When the Packers claimed safety Micah Pellerin off waivers a couple of weeks ago, the team cut one of the receivers they signed immediately after the draft, Marcus Rivers.

Gilleylen, who ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at Nebraska's pro day and was a record-setting sprinter at Leander (Texas) High School, has received praise from receivers coach Edgar Bennett. Clearly, Gilleylen isn't going to make the 53-man roster this summer, but making the practice squad would be a remarkable accomplishment and a great starting-off point for his NFL career.

"They could see that I had speed and I could run," he said. "All I needed was one shot and that's what happened with me."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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