The Green Bay Packers have just one pure cornerback on their roster with at least a season’s worth of NFL starts to his credit. For most coaches, this would cause sleep deprivation. But not for Joe Whitt.
The cool-as-a-cucumber seventh-year cornerbacks coach for the Packers hardly ever breaks a sweat. After all, he has been there, done that.
“My job as a defensive back coach, No. 1, is to get my players to do what (defensive coordinator) Dom Capers wants them to do,” said Whitt during last week’s NFL Draft. “I don’t care who they bring in the room, I’m going to coach them as hard as I can and I’m going to get the most out of everybody that comes in that room. If they’re a No. 1 or if they’re a free agent, I really don’t care. I’m going to coach them as hard as I can to one goal and that’s to win a championship. If it’s a first-rounder or a free agent, if you play well, you’ll play. If you don’t, you’ll sit there and watch.”
Whitt has done as good a job as any on the Packers’ staff at getting the most out of his first-year players. And he has done it with one of the most demanding positions on the field for a rookie.
In 2010, Sam Shields came out of nowhere to not only make the Packers’ roster but develop into one of the team’s best cover corners. In 2012, Casey Hayward led the team with six interceptions as one of the league’s best slot corners and a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. And in 2013, Micah Hyde was a key contributor in all 17 games, not to mention a surprise performer on special teams as a return man.
“Joe Whitt is excellent. His reputation of what we’ve done here in the past with our young corners speaks for itself,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “So the culture is set. There’s a blueprint there of taking young guys and getting them ready. It’s really the format for how we train our whole football team. Frankly, we train our whole football team from the way I learned to train quarterbacks from Paul Hackett back in ’93. That’ll never change, but, yes, we have tremendous faith in Joe just in the way he coaches the position and how his players respond and improve.”
When Whitt was promoted to cornerbacks coach from defensive quality control in 2009 - the year Capers came to Green Bay - the Packers were stocked with veteran talent at cornerback, which included Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Tramon Williams. As good as the group was that season, the season after probably served as a better indication of Whitt’s potential as a coach.
In less than a year in 2010, Whitt and Shields combined forces to transform raw ability into on-field results. Shields played his first three seasons at the University of Miami at wide receiver before converting to cornerback his senior season. Seeing his speed, the Packers plucked Shields from the undrafted free agent heap and, by the end of the season, he was making interceptions to send the Packers to the Super Bowl. He played 819 snaps in 18 games (eight starts) that season - most at cornerback behind Woodson and Williams - recording four interceptions, 14 passes defended, one sack and one forced fumble.
In subsequent years, Whitt worked with Shields to become a more complete cornerback - including a focus on tackling - and the results have shown. A year ago last spring, the Packers re-signed Shields to a four-year, $39 million contract.
As rookie orientation camp begins Friday, Whitt again will be called upon to work his magic. He will have a host of first-year and undrafted cornerbacks to work with, but the spotlight will be on the Packers’ first two picks of the draft. First-rounder Damarious Randall will be starting out at cornerback for the Packers after playing a more versatile safety role at Arizona State. And second-round pick Quinten Rollins played basketball for three seasons at Miami of Ohio before giving football a shot. In one season, he became MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
“The main challenge is how do we play winning football quickly? That’s the main challenge,” said Whitt. “I can get them – I’m not going to say, ‘I can get them,’ – but they’ll be able to play and make plays and make splash plays here or there, but can they not make the mistake when you’re in a big game? Can they play consistently? How fast can we get them to that point? That is the difficult part of it because all young players make mistakes. I don’t care if they played the position all the way through from grade school. When you’re a rookie, you make mistakes. And so, how fast can we… and some of the mistakes, you just have to see it. You have to make it to learn from it. That’s just football. But how fast can I expose them to hard situations and get them to feel comfortable out there and be able to play fast?”
With Williams and Davon House departing via free agency this offseason, the Packers are younger than ever at cornerback under Capers. Shields is the elder veteran in his sixth season (67 games, 49 starts). Hayward, the assumed starter on the outside, is in his fourth year (35 games, nine starts). Demetri Goodson, another player with a basketball background, will look to make a jump in his second year (just six games played on special teams in 2014). Hyde is also a holdover expected to assume nickel cornerback duties, though he is listed as a safety first.
The Packers have long had the luxury of strong veteran leadership at cornerback. Whether or not Shields can step up and fill that void with Williams gone remains to be seen. And though Whitt has worked some wonders with first-year players, there are also those who have not made an immediate impact in their rookie season like House (2011) and Brandon Underwood (2009).
Regardless, Whitt will make his points clear to Randall and Rollins.
“I hope both of these guys don’t think they’re going to come in just because of their pedigree that they’re going to necessarily play in front of anybody else. That’s now how it works in our room,” continued Whitt from his earlier comments. “The best guys play. I’m excited with their skill-set and I’m excited to add them to the room, but we have a lot of work to do. This is a young room. Only Casey and Sam have any experience playing defensive back in that room right now – well, you know, Micah’s between safety and corner. This is a young room. We have a lot of work in front of us. I understand the challenge that’s in front of myself and this group but we’re going to answer it. I’m very confident in the men that I’m working with.”