Camp spotlight: Joey Thomas

In one of Alice Cooper's most famous songs, the rocker sings "School's out for summer."

For Joey Thomas, college is over but school definitely was not out for summer.

One of the Green Bay Packers' three third-round draft choices, Thomas spent the two off-season minicamps as well as the opportunity sessions on the hot seat. Which makes sense, because Thomas could find himself on the hot corner regardless of whether or not Mike McKenzie decides to suit up for the green and gold this fall.

At Montana State, Thomas was able to get by on his physical tools. At 6-foot-1 and owner of a 4.45-second clocking in the 40-yard dash, Thomas was able to dominate when matched up with the not-ready-for-prime-time athletes of Division 1-AA.

Everyone in the NFL, however, is a big-time athlete. Whether it's the Vikings' Randy Moss or the Lions' Charles Rogers, there are no slouches at this level. Which means Thomas has a lot of work to do before he's ready for prime time.

"Joey's still working on a lot of the fundamental things," new secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. "If we can get that worked out, he's going to be a damn nice player for us."

It's more than just the proper footwork and the right way to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage, though. Ask Thomas to compare his collegiate playbook with the the voluminous playbook cobbled together by new Packers defensive coordinator Bob Slowik, and Thomas' eyes open as wide as when he's locked in on an interception.

"Wow! They only have 85 percent in and the playbook's like this," Thomas exclaimed, parting his index finger and thumb a few inches to show how big the playbook is. "There's still more to come? Huh? There's still more to come?"

Turning serious, Thomas adds, "Mentally, you definitely have to be on top of your game because there's so much information to take in and then you're expected to be able to play it out just like that. Mentally, it's tough, but you've got to be up for it."

As far as the physical tools go, Thomas is the prototype NFL corner. He's big enough to cover the tall receivers that are all the rage across the league yet fast enough to keep up with the sprinters. A major knock on Thomas before the draft, however, was his ego. He was deemed a headcase, a know-it-all and basically hard to coach.

"He's really cocky and has all the answers," one NFC scout told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Thinks no matter what happened to him and he gets beats he's still fine because he's good. He's a yahoo. I'll tell you exactly what I told (his team's head coach): buyer beware. It's not that he's an (expletive). It's just that he's got all the answers. Whatever he does he tries to cheat on. At the combine and the workout."

Another scout added, "Bad, bad guy. We wouldn't touch him. I've taken him out of the equation because of it. He's always right there on the fringe. He's an accident waiting to happen."

That side of Thomas, however, was nowhere to be seen during the minicamps.

"He's been a wonderful kid. He wants to learn. He's been outstanding." Schottenheimer said.

Whether the advice was coming from Schottenheimer, starting corner Al Harris or defensive backs coach and former NFL star Lionel Washington, Thomas soaked it up like a sponge. In the locker room, he's about as humble as can be. One of the standouts of the minicamps, Thomas did anything but gloat and maintained he has plenty of work to do.

"Every day is a work in progress. I'm just trying to be the best Packer I can be every day and work hard and hope for something good to come out of it," Thomas said.

While the jump from Montana State to a Super Bowl contender is enormous, Thomas says keeping focused on the small things is the key to getting better and breaking into the cornerback rotation.

"It's definitely not going easy. It's a process," Thomas said. "They coach us up on what we're doing wrong every day, so as long as you pay attention and listen and take in the details, chances are you'll probably be better the next day. I think the biggest thing is to concentrate on all the small things and that's what I'm trying to do. Focus on all the little things and all the techniques and all the things that will make me a better player."

The little things are something Thomas didn't have to focus on at Montana State. With his NFL-caliber tools, he was basically a man among boys, starting 37 of 42 games and intercepting 11 passes while batting away 42 during his four years. With the bad rap coming out of college and the small-school label firmly attached, Thomas is hungry to succeed.

"In college, you could get away with being a good athlete. Here you can't," Thomas said. "That's probably the biggest transition for me: becoming a better technician. My goal is to try as consistent as possible. That's the name of the game. I'm just trying to take something away and focus on one thing every day. Make a conscious effort and say, ‘Hey, today, I'm going to focus on this.' Then you go back and watch films and see how you did and say, ‘You know what, I'm going to focus on that again' instead of focusing on this and that. I think when you break the game down into small millimeters instead of the big picture, that's how you get better. At least in my case, that's how I'm striving to get better."

Thomas outplayed first-round pick Ahmad Carroll during the first minicamp, but Carroll moved ahead of Thomas during the June practices. Nonetheless, Thomas felt he was making strides simply because he had a better grasp of the defense.

"I understand what's being asked of me. Before, they were telling me ‘do this, do that' but it didn't necessarily click when you didn't necessarily know how to go about accomplishing things," Thomas said.

"This time around I kind of understand and have better idea of what's being asked of me. It's easier to apply when you actually know when you're not, like, ‘I think this is what he means or it might be this, it might be that,' but I actually know what I should be knowing. For me, it makes it a lot easier for me to just go out and play football."

The sooner Thomas learns what's being asked of him, the better, because with the Packers' cornerback situation, Thomas may be asked to play a lot of football on Sundays this season.

Editor's Note. This is the second of a four-part series profiling key players battling for spots in the secondary, the position that is the Packers' biggest question mark. This series includes stories on Ahmad Carroll, Mark Roman and Marques Anderson.

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