Johnny Jolly hasn't made the Green Bay Packers' roster, let alone emerged as a key player or difference-maker on an improved defensive line. Nonetheless, what he's been able to do after a three-year suspension and stint in prison has been remarkable.
"This has never happened to me before. It's not something that I have something to gauge it against," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said on Thursday. "The thing I was interested to see in Jolly — one of the things Johnny played with was instincts, (so) how much he still had of that and seeing blocks and stuff. He'll be the first to admit it's not all there yet, but it was amazing — the first play he had (in OTAs), he read the block and we were looking on tape and said, ‘He's a football player. He just sees things fast.'"
The instincts are what struck general manager Ted Thompson, who ultimately made the decision to bring back the troubled but productive 30-year-old.
"I think some people are born with certain God-given instincts to perform at a particular position and I think Johnny's one of those guys," Thompson said earlier in the week.
B.J. Raji, who lined up alongside Jolly as a rookie in 2009, immediately noticed the same thing.
"I think what's jumped out to me was how he hasn't lost his instincts," Raji said. "You expect some of his technique to not be there for being off this long. That takes a while. But he hasn't lost his instincts. That's huge. Some guys have it naturally – the knack for getting off blocks and getting into the backfield. He hasn't lost it."
Against the Cardinals last Friday night, Jolly played in 23 defensive snaps. He doesn't show up in the NFL's official gamebook, but Jolly had two quarterback pressures — he should have had one sack — plus got into the backfield a couple times and did a nice job hustling to string out a failed fourth-down bootleg.
"Oh, man, it's all great," Jolly said. "I'm just pushing to better myself to help better the team, and I'm going to continue to do that during practice and these preseason games."
Jolly is listed at 325 pounds, like he was back in 2009. More likely, he's around 340, though his conditioning isn't a big concern with a couple weeks of camp remaining.
"Johnny is working to get to the level he was at before," Trgovac said. "His legs, you can see them coming back. He's got a lot of natural instincts, and I think he's working to get back to the level he (was) at. Is he here yet? No, but we've still got plenty of time. Johnny made some good plays in the game the other day. Hopefully, Johnny can stay healthy. We'll just have to see how much he develops from here until the end of camp, how much further he can take it."
Whether he makes it or not remains to be seen. With their preference for playing their two-linemen nickel package, there's little reason for the Packers to keep more than six defensive linemen. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Datone Jones, C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal and Mike Daniels are the clear front-runners for those spots. Fifth-round pick Josh Boyd hasn't been as good as Jolly, but Thompson's preference is to go with youth and Boyd is just 24.
Still, that he's been given a chance at all shows the high regard Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have for Jolly. His ability to take on blocks would be an asset for a team that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed per rush in each of the three seasons without him but was No. 2 in 2009. He's been exemplary in the locker room and a leader by his actions.
"You know what? The guy was sick the other day, or wasn't feeling real well," Trgovac said. "I went out there and I told him, ‘You need a blow? You need a blow?' He said, ‘No, Coach, I'm going.' Obviously. it's not there all the way yet, but we still have two more weeks of this."
Jolly knows the work that is ahead but is thankful to be in position to do what he loves.
"It's been worth the wait," he said. "I can't even explain the feeling that I have to be here right now. I always thought that I would be back; I just didn't know how long it would take. I just kept praying about it and kept the faith and now I'm here.
"All I can do is keep working."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.