Training camp: The darkhorses

Packer Report's Tyler Dunne mentions five players who could come out of nowhere to capture key roles this season.

Corey White

The Packers saw the potential. Not enough to warrant a precious roster spot, but enough to hang onto like a strong-armed baseball pitcher in a farm system.

Corey White's rare combination of size, strength and explosiveness intrigued Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy last training camp. So they put White on the practice squad for one season to pick up the nuances of the zone-blocking scheme. Korey Hall and John Kuhn manned the position, improving as the year progressed.

Still, Hall isn't etched in stone as the starting fullback — especially after Green Bay's rushing game was pushed around in the NFC championship game. The New York Giants consistently beat the Packers' one-cut scheme to the spot and blew up rushing plays before they developed. The Packers gained only 28 rushing yards on 14 attempts, never establishing any momentum. Season over.

With the uncertainty at quarterback, it's imperative for the Packers' run game to start the season light-years better than last September, when it averaged a shade more than 2 yards per carry in its first four games.

Maybe a road-grading fullback takes Ryan Grant to the next level.

After a year of grooming, maybe White's the guy. The halfback-to-fullback covert is nimble in tight spaces and packs an abrupt initial punch. After spending one season on the practice squad to absorb the mental aspect of the zone scheme, White's physical edge may take over.

Every running play in the NFC title game seemed to crash in a muddled heap. A Lorenzo Neal- or Sam Gash-type of fullback could have salvaged 3 or 4 yards out of some of those stalemates.

White has the tools. The coaches see his potential. This summer, he has to prove he's been living in the playbook.

 

Jeremy Thompson

An unfortunate series of events has unfolded beneath the Favre Fiasco blinders. And it could derail Green Bay's rising defense.

Unless, of course, someone like Jeremy Thompson takes training camp by storm.

Last year at this time, Ted Thompson was criticized by some as stocking the defensive line too much and leaving other positions thin.  Now, defensive tackle heads into camp as the team's biggest question mark.

But the emergence of Jeremy Thompson — a fourth-round pick in April — could right the ship.

After trading Corey Williams to Cleveland and his odds-on replacement Johnny Jolly making a Terrell Buckley-sized gaffe, talent at defensive tackle has been sponged dry. Justin Harrell can't stay healthy — and has shown nothing when he is. The Packers would rather use short but quick Colin Cole as a change-of-pace tackle in the rotation. So, if Jolly is suspended, look for Green Bay to slide Cullen Jenkins back inside.

In turn, this vacates the two-down, right defensive end spot opposite of Aaron Kampman. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila needs to stay as a third-down specialist — even at $6.5 million. KGB had 9.5 sacks in his first 11 games last season, but he showed he doesn't have the strength or energy to be a full-timer.

With Jason Taylor dancing to D.C., a door has opened for Jeremy Thompson. If the athletic defensive end from Wake Forest flourishes, it may avert a potentially disastrous situation that'd leave the inside of the line Pampers-soft.

It's easy to pinpoint where Thompson stands out too.

"My athleticism," he said at minicamp. "I think I need to learn the playbook more and know what I'm doing and get some consistency. But right now, I can be an athlete."

At the Scouting Combine, his numbers across the board reflected such athleticism. Thompson ranked eighth at his position in the 40-yard dash (4.75 seconds — tied with second overall pick Chris Long), seventh in the vertical leap (32 inches), eighth in the broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), third in the three-cone drill (6.97 seconds) and fifth in the 20-yard shuttle (4.23 seconds).

Thompson said his athleticism is the product of being a well-rounded athlete growing up. He didn't restrict himself to football 24/7. In the summer, he played AAU basketball, which spilled right into football season, which spilled right into the prep basketball season, which spilled into track, which then came full circle back to the AAU circuit.

"A multidimensional approach to athletics and sports helps you become a better athlete," Thompson said.

Initially, starting might be a lot to ask of Thompson. Mentally, he'll need to learn in a hurry at camp. But physically — at 6-foot-5, 264 pounds — Thompson was known as a reliable run stopper at Wake Forest. As a senior, he finished with 46 tackles (11 for loss), 6.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and broke up three passes. As a junior, he returned an interception 86 yards for a score.

Of course, veteran Michael Montgomery, special-teams ace Jason Hunter and even KGB will be in the mix. But coaches will be monitoring Thompson's upside and athleticism in every drill and scrimmage session.

With the Packers, a window of opportunity may crack open much sooner than he expected.

 

Other darkhorses

— Tight end Evan Moore — a wide receiver at Stanford — caught everything thrown to him during OTAs and minicamp. If Moore proves he can block 300-pound ends, look for him to seriously contend for the No. 3 TE roster spot.

Abdul Hodge appears to be healthy after two seasons full of knee problems. The Packers haven't given up on him. Maybe the tackle-machine from Iowa busts loose in Year Three.

— Coaches lauded DeShawn Wynn for a newfound commitment in the weight room this offseason. If the ultratalented Wynn can stay on the field — unlike last summer's charade of mysterious injuries — he could challenge Brandon Jackson for the top backup spot at running back.  

Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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