Young linemen in mix for starting spot

In order to build cohesiveness along the offensive line, the Packers will soon solidify their starting guard positions so they have a couple of weeks to work with a regular unit before the season opener Sept. 11. Rookie Will Whitticker and first-year player Atlas Herrion could be surprises to nail down a spot.

Whitticker, a seventh-round draft choice this year, and Herrion, a practice-squad player last year, are both listed at right guard competing with 11-year veteran Matt O'Dwyer, a free agent pickup this off-season. Whitticker got a preseason start against the Chargers on Aug. 11 and is again expected to start against the Bills on Aug. 20. Herrion has also been working with the first unit this training camp.

Offensive line coach Larry Beightol has been pleasantly surprised with the progress of his young performers.

"I think both have had excellent camps," he said.

Both have had camps so good that they are being considered as regular starters by their coaches. They were not reasonably thought to compete for such headed into training camp.

Since Beightol has been in Green Bay (1999), the Packers have always used the philosophy of starting the best five offensive linemen regardless of position. Therefore, it may not even be that unlikely to think that both Whitticker and Herrion could start at each guard spot should they prove over the next month that they are better than O'Dwyer, Adrian Klemm, or Grey Ruegamer. Right now, both are listed at right guard, and it appears Whitticker has the nod at that spot.

"He's more than what we thought even," said Beightol. "He's very smart. He's picked up our system, and he takes coaching extremely well."

At 6-5, 338 pounds out of Michigan St., Whitticker is a huge guard, but the Packers feel he has the versatility to do what their offense requires. He did well for himself in his first NFL action in the preseason, though it may have been difficult to gauge him individually because he said he was a part of several double-team blocks (the Chargers employed a 3-4 defensive front, which necessitated that).

Still, Whitticker was happy with his performance saying, "I do feel I made the most of my opportunity."

Five years ago, a couple of rookie tackles named Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher were thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries and have not left the lineup since. Head coach Mike Sherman and Beightol presided over that transition and that could impact their feelings on starting a rookie or first-year player this season at guard. With such dire straits at the position again, albeit under somewhat different circumstances, Whitticker or Herrion or both have a chance at being the opening game starters.

The Packers have not changed their offensive playbook after losing Pro Bowler Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, who keyed their running game and play calls with their athletic ability. That could also separate this year's candidates at guard, specifically Whitticker and Herrion.

"You have to be physical because you are going to have big people playing on you. I think they can handle that," said Beightol. "If our run game is to be successful though, we have to have guys that can pull and get out on the perimeter like we have had in the past. That's important. I think these guys can. I think they're nifty enough even though they're big."

Herrion, originally undrafted out of Alabama in 2004, may be little-known to the public, but holdovers from the Packers' roster a year ago certainly know of him. After being a part of the final cut-downs before last season began, he was re-signed to the practice squad for the entire year. He had a good training camp in 2004, but was part of a position that was deep on the team, and thus was a casualty for the 53-man roster. Still, he was too good to let go entirely, and he is back again this year fighting for a spot.

"Atlas is making excellent strides…," said Beightol. "To be honest, if he had one liability, it's his pass protection. He knows that. It's not that he can't do it. It's the consistency of it. If he can become a little bit more consistent, then he's certainly in the mix there (at right guard) as well."

The Packers really have little to lose by giving Whitticker or Herrion a starting job and can always fall back on veterans like O'Dwyer and Ruegamer. Experience can be secondary to talent in situations such as the one they face. That is why Saturday's night game against the Bills will be such an important evaluator in determining if Whitticker and Herrion have what it takes on game days and not just in practice.

Matt Tevsh

Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and E-mail him at

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