Youth is served

Preseason games the perfect testing ground for younger players

Last Thursday night's game vs the San Diego Chargers gave several young players a chance to showcase their talents. The players I concentrated on were the rookie draft picks and the rookie free agents. I also watched players in their second year, that are virtually rookies because of lack of playing time last year or injury. Players in this category would include P B.J. Sander, QB J.T. O' Sullivan, G Atlas Herrion, DT Colin Cole and DT Donnell Washington.

On offense, G Will Whitticker started and played the entire first half. He didn't do anything special, but he held his own and kept his mistakes to a minimum. G Atlas Herrion and C/G Junius Coston also received ample playing time in the second half and are continuing to push for more opportunities. Whitticker and Herrion each have an excellent shot at being the starter at RG.

The young QBs struggled due to a number of factors. Aaron Rodgers completed his first two passes, but had audio problems with his helmet. That disrupted his rhythm and later on the weather hindered his success. Rodgers did step up nicely on an attempt in the 4th quarter, only to see the ball skip off WR Andrae Thurman's hands. J.T. O'Sullivan struggled from the beginning with a fumble on a botched play action pass. But O'Sullivan did stay resilient as he led the Packers into field goal postion late in the game. WRs Craig Bragg and Thurman need to step their game up. Both can also make an impact on special teams, but Bragg didn't help himself with a fumbled punt.

On defense, the Packers had a lot of guys step up. S Nick Collins started and also picked off a pass to thwart a San Diego scoring threat. DE Mike Montgomery seemed to be all over the place as the rookie surely opened some eyes with his aggressive play. DT Donnell Washington also showed flashes of why the Packer defensive coaches are so intrigued by him. DT Colin Cole started, but was ineffective. Cole must be more consistent to be a regular contributor in the defensive line rotation. A couple of undrafted LBs, Roy Manning and Zak Woodfin, showed that they have a nose for the football. LB is a position where the Packers need someone to step up, especially with the knee injury to Na'il Diggs (knee).

CB Mike Hawkins was burned for a TD pass, but still flashed the abilty to be a shutdown corner. Hawkins looks very natural in pass coverage, but he needs to prove he can play the run as well. S Marviel Underwood didn't make a huge impact, but the S position is still wide open as evidenced by the release of veteran Arturo Freeman Sunday. Young CBs Patrick Dendy and Leigh Torrance need to upgrade their play. On special teams, P B.J. Sander actually looked like a third-round pick. Sander punted very well in difficult conditions, and he made an excellent hold on K Ryan Longwell's game winning FG.

Saturday's game against the Buffalo Bills will be a big test for these youngsters. After the Bills game, the coaching staff will determine the depth chart in terms of starters and key back ups. This is a huge week.

It's also a huge week for rookie WR Terrence Murphy, OLB Brady Poppinga and CB Chris Johnson. All have been hampered as of late with injuries, and this week is key for them to show their worth. Johnson isn't a rookie, or even a 2nd year player, but basically is a neophyte. Johnson flashed great speed and potential in the 2003 camp, but hasn't been able to stay healthy and get on the field.

The Packers walked off Lambeau Field Thursday night with a 10-7 victory. Winning is always important with young players. Yes, it was just a pre-season game. But it was a game at Lambeau. The young players need to feel what it's like to win at home on a regular basis. 4-4 last year at home was unacceptable. Some of the lessons learned Thursday night were painful. Some were foundation building. Some were exciting. The learning must continue, along with the repetitions. It's getting close to crunch time. Some players will continue to get better, while others will get a visit from the turk. Buffalo will be an excellent test. I'm sure the players will want to erase the impression that the Bills dominated them in the scrimmage at Lambeau. Who will seize this opportunity and run with it?

Bob Fox is a longtime Packers fan and freelance writer from the Tampa, Fla., area.

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