Nixon's Move Goes from 'Gruesome' to Great

James Nixon, who had a pick-six during Saturday's Family Night, played defense for just one season in college. He said the transition from wide receiver hasn't always been smooth.

James Nixon didn't want this night to end.

Nixon made the biggest play of Saturday's Family Night Scrimmage, with an interception and 66-yard return for a touchdown. He punctuated the play with a Lambeau Leap to the north end zone.

About a half-hour after the scrimmage, Nixon was still soaring while answering question after question from his spot in the auxiliary locker room.

"I know it doesn't really count in the record books but it does for me, my first NFL touchdown. I'm still humbled by it and it's a great milestone," he said.

Cornerback is one of the Packers' deepest positions, with Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Sam Shields and Davon House topping the pecking order, Jarrett Bush being a standout on special teams and a fifth-round pick invested in Micah Hyde. Nixon, Brandon Smith and Loyce Means, however, have taken turns turning heads throughout the offseason and into training camp. They're all fast, bright, eager to learn and filled with upside.

Nixon, who at 6-foot ran a 4.31 in his 40 at pro day in March 2012, is learning the position on the fly. He spent his first three seasons at Temple, where he did just about everything. As a sophomore in 2009, he scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning. As a junior, he was third-team all-conference as a kick returner.

"I pretty much did it all, all the special teams, everything," he said.

When coach Al Golden was fired following the 2010 season and replaced by former Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, Nixon decided to transfer. He landed at Division II California (Pa.), where he was moved to cornerback because of the presence of All-American receiver Thomas Mayo.

He started two games for the Vulcans, went undrafted in 2012 and spent training camp with the Cardinals. He failed to make their roster, and was signed to Green Bay's practice squad on Sept. 20.

With the Packers, Nixon would be molded by cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. Whitt is no novice to taking wide receivers and turning them into cornerbacks. He did so at Louisville with William Gay, Kerry Rhodes and Antoine Harris, each of whom played or is playing in the NFL. His biggest success story is Sam Shields, who played cornerback for just one season at Miami but has blossomed into one of top young corners in the league. Whitt himself had to make that transition. A wide receiver at Auburn, Whitt broke into the collegiate coaching ranks by coaching wide receivers at The Citadel in 2002. In 2003, he was hired by Louisville to coach the cornerbacks.

"It was very gruesome," Nixon said of his transition. "Me and Coach Joe Whitt, we struggled a bit in the beginning because some of the terminology, I just couldn't catch on to it because I still had an offensive mind-set. Once he helped break it down to me – it took a while but he started to get to me and helped me through it and it's working out pretty good."

Nixon, who had an interception during one of the OTAs that was open to reporters, admits he has plenty to learn. Asked at what point he felt like a defensive back rather than a wide receiver playing defensive back, Nixon said that point hasn't come.

"Maybe within another year or two. I'm not there yet," he said. "I'm still learning everything, from formations to guessing what type of routes to expect with reductions and stuff like that."

With stiff competition for roster spots, Nixon knows Saturday night was just what he needed. A big Family Night in 2007 kick-started Tramon Williams' career. Brandian Ross had a pick-six of Aaron Rodgers on Family Night in 2011 and has settled into a career with the Raiders.

Nixon only can hope his big play will do for him what it did for Williams and Ross.

"In the beginning, I was a little shocked. I'm still a bit shocked by it," Nixon said. "Once I caught it, I just knew I had to get to the end zone to open the coaches' eyes and open my teammates' eyes and let them know what I'm capable of doing."

"I can't wait," he added, "to call my parents and talk to them about it."

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

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