Improving Up, Down The Line

Amid the optimism of early summer, Jethro Franklin was assessing what should lie ahead professionally for Vonnie Holliday in 2001.

"The sky's the limit for him," the defensive line coach enthused.

A substantial endorsement of Number 90's athletic skills, to be sure.

And, it turns out, one that was not misplaced. A dozen games into the regular season, the highly productive Carolinian has justified Franklin's glowing appraisal, emerging as the leader of the defensive line in tackles – by a wide margin – in an impressive all-around performance.

"He's played very consistent," Franklin said, approving. He added, "Vonnie's had two games where he was our defensive player of the week and received the game ball. So he's played very consistent."

Holliday himself attributes his accelerated productivity to three factors – greater familiarity with the Ed Donatell defensive scheme installed in 2000, improved health (he was beset by injury problems last season) and being "excited" about playing with his current colleagues on the defensive unit.

"We seemed to really start out fast," he said, adding, "It was a great thing coming back to a team with the same coaching staff, first of all (he had begun the 1999 season under Head Coach Ray Rhodes and the 2000 campaign under then new Head Coach Mike Sherman) and with the same scheme for the first time in my career.

"So I was really excited coming into the season. I knew my place in this defense ... on this team. And there weren't any off-the-field issues lying out there for me this year for a change."

Assessing his imposing contributions – he has made 22 more tackles entering the Dec. 9 game against Chicago than any of his confreres along the defensive line – Vonnie noted, "You look at it and we had a lot of success in our defense early, and a lot of guys have contributed to that. But I had a couple big games, a couple double-digit tackle games, which were really big.

"Right now," he went on to assert, "it's so exciting to play in this defense with this coaching staff with this team. And, as a result, we're having a lot of fun this year."

And why is it so exciting? "It's always exciting when you're winning," Holliday promptly rejoined. "But we have a lot of great guys on this team ... some great coaches. The chemistry's good here, particularly on our defensive line with all of those guys it's like a brotherhood in there. And that's really big, chemistry, when you're talking about a successful team. When you have to come to work every day, it's been all year long you're having fun."

A substantially different year for Holliday personally.

At mention of the 2000 season, he shook his head and rejoined, regretfully, "Last year? In the Arizona game (Week 4), I pulled a hamstring. Then I come back and fracture the ankle, so it was pretty tough last year.

"This year, so far so good," Vonnie said, cautiously appending as he reached down, "I'm, going to knock on some wood here. But I really feel good. We're in the eleventh week now, going into the twelfth week and things are really looking good. And this is the best I've felt since my rookie year (1998) and that's really important."

Switching sides
A major element in his professional development, he concedes, has been his successful adjustment required in moving from right end, his original position in the defensive line, to left end.

"I think that can be attributed to the fact that, in my second year in the league – it was Ray Rhodes' first year here ... his only year here – and I was asked to go to the left side to play. And I hadn't played end before coming here. In college I was a tackle. So I come in and play right end (in '98) and have some success. Reggie (White) retires and they move me to the left end and it was a little uncomfortable for me. It took me a while to get used to it.

"But that year, playing left end, has now gotten me in a position where I can go back and forth because I've developed a certain level of confidence and I became comfortable there."

Elaborating on this point, Vonnie said, "It's not that one side is more difficult than the other. My rookie year, I played mostly over the inside a lot of the time. There was no tight end over there. When you go to the left side, that's the offense's right hand side and they're running the ball .. that's the strength of their offense. So there is a little more running plays over there.

"But you look at it and it's just like you're right-handed. You know, most people write with their right hand, or do everything with their right hand. And now, to have to do it with your left hand, a lot of people couldn't do that ...That's the adjustment."

Now, Holliday will be quick to tell you, "I'm really comfortable in this defense and I'm really comfortable playing up and down the line. The only thing I don't play is the big man in the middle, where Gilbert (Brown) plays, the nose position. And, sometimes in 'dime,' I'm in that position.

But I really feel comfortable... I've developed, I guess, up and down the line and I feel comfortable just about anywhere."

Wants more sacks
Although he also is generally "comfortable" with the level of his game, Vonnie would like to do substantially better in one category.

"You know, it's all about the sacks," he said. "You look at it right now and I have five sacks. And I certainly would like to have that number up right now. I get a lot of hits on the quarterback but when it comes down to it, there are not enough sacks. And you've got to take that personally, to get that number up."

What, on the subject of skills and productivity, might he consider his best assets?

"I think the combination of power and speed," Holliday replied. "You look at some guys – you look at Kabeer (Gbaja-Biamila), a small-type rusher that are smaller, faster guys. You have your bigger, stronger guys like Gilbert.

"But I'm like a nice blend of all of them. You know, I have some quickness. I feel like, against the run, I can get it done. I don't think there's a better guy, I play the run really well, I think. Overall, you put it all together, I think I have a lot of what it takes to get it done.

"I think I have the upper hand on a lot of guys because, naturally, I'm just blessed with physical size and the speed ability."

Does he find himself better suited to the Donatell defense than the previous scheme?

"Well, I think, given that defense another year, I'd be comfortable in it," Vonnie rejoined. "But being in this defense two years in a row – with the personnel we have here now – for the most part I'm a power end and I play the power end position, which is the strong end in this defense ... I'm well-suited to that. And it works out well for the defense and for me.

"This is probably the best defense I've played on. That first year, I was excited about it. It was my first year and the defense was good. But, overall, this defense with the younger additions we've had – Kabeer coming in on third downs, Santana (Dotson) working himself back to a position to play, Gilbert Brown in the middle ... (Jim) Flanigan was a nice addition.

"We have so much depth. It was unfortunate that LeRoy Butler went down because he definitely brought this defense more than an athlete. He was like a captain back there with his expertise and his spirit.

"But you look at this thing and, with the personnel we have, and how active guys have been – this is the best defense I've played on." And the team as a whole?

"This team as a whole?" Vonnie echoed. "I guess that's where the excitement comes from, because this team is so talented. "Everyone talks about Brett Favre. Of course, when you have a guy like that on your team, your chances of winning are pretty good.

"But we've got a lot of guys The offensive line, those guys are good over there. We have an exciting, electrifying offense. Ahman Green is having a great year running the ball. William Henderson is blocking well. We've got receivers that are playing great – Free (Antonio Freeman) and (Bill) Schroeder over there.

"So, you look at it as a whole – this team is exciting. This team is a very, very good team. And right now, we're sitting at 8-and-3 (Holliday was three days removed from the 162nd imbroglio against the Chicago Bears as he spoke) and we definitely have a shot at it. You talk about Super Bowl teams ... I think the Green Bay Packers' name definitely should be in that mix."

An additional and integral element in this "picture," Holliday assures, is the presence and direction of Head Coach Mike Sherman.

"He's the general," Vonnie said. "He's out there. He's making sure that everyone gets what they need to get it done. And he does a good job of that. I mean, he's one of those coaches that ... he tells it like it is. You know, he respects his players and he wants to be respected.

"And, as a player you've got to respect and enjoy playing for a guy who gives you a bottom line and that's it. You know, there's no hiding ... there's no camouflaging of the words or how he feels. What you see is what you get with a guy like Mike. And once you understand that as one of his players, that's when you learn and you become ... I guess the chemistry's there and you've just got to love playing and fighting for a guy like that."

Involved in community
Away from football, Holliday has a number of other interests, not the least of them his "Vonnie Holliday Foundation," about which he reports, "It's been doing good, you know. It's one of those things, just like I'm a young guy on the rise in my career, we've got it off the ground and we're starting to do some good things, mostly back in my home town in that community (Camden, S.C.) ... But, as this thing goes on, I guess we're going to branch out into other communities, hopefully get something going here in the Green Bay community."

Initially, the Foundation "is doing a lot of work with the Council on Aging in my home town," Vonnie informed. "The elderly people – there's a big center that they go to and ... they have all kinds of activities for them during the day. They go around and deliver food to them if they aren't able to cook for themselves – the Foundation aids in that. And we also have a big turkey giveaway on Thanksgiving. And we're going to have a big party and another big giveaway for Christmas – a 'Toys for Tots' type of deal.

"My Mom's involved, and my family," Vonnie confided, "so they're really enjoying doing their work for them."'

On another subject, Holliday's professional development, Franklin says of him, "There's a lot of things that young man (he turned 26 on Dec. 11) has accomplished, but there's a lot he has yet to accomplish."

"I would have to agree with Jethro," Vonnie said. "Coming into this league my rookie year and playing with the likes of Reggie White...guys like that. Ultimately, to be the best in this league, you get judged by your peers so you get to the Pro Bowl – you're a Pro Bowl-type player, an all-pro player. And that's what I'm striving to be. I want to be one of the best to play the game or the best young defensive end out there.

"And I am young, but it's time to get the show on the road. And hopefully this year before it's all said and done I'll be grouped in that category."

It remained for Franklin to sum up Vonnie and his football future.

He promptly reaffirmed, "The sky's still the limit..."

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