New hair, same passion for Barnett

Nick Barnett is forced to learn the new defense at a slower pace as he recovers from last year's torn ACL. "When I'm out there watching, I'm like, ‘Man, I just know if I was out there, I'd be having so much fun.' You feel that energy," he said.

Nobody would ever accuse Nick Barnett of being mellow.

So, you can imagine what's going through his mind as he watches his teammates learning and executing the Packers' new defensive scheme during organized team activities.

"When I'm out there watching, I'm like, ‘Man, I just know if I was out there, I'd be having so much fun.' You feel that energy," Barnett said after Wednesday's practice.

The standout inside linebacker, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2006 and 2007, remains sidelined with a torn ACL sustained on Nov. 9 at Minnesota. He says his rehab is ahead of schedule. He started running and doing "football movements" about two weeks ago, though he's not doing anything full speed. He promises he'll be ready "at some point" in training camp.

For now, he's healthy enough to be on the field for the Packers' lengthy jog-through segment at the start of each practice. So, while Barnett hasn't been able to dive head-first into the new scheme, he's at least getting his feet wet while Brandon Chillar fills his spot in the lineup.

"It's very valuable to be doing the walk-throughs, especially learning a new defense and terminology and different checks and stuff," Barnett said. "I'm not able to do it at game speed, but just to be able to be out there and working the checks and the communication with all the other guys on the field is huge. I'm glad I get that opportunity, at least."

Barnett is cruising some uncharted personal waters. He played in all 48 games at Oregon State and had missed just two games in the NFL until going down against the Vikings. Not surprisingly, there have been a few mental hurdles along the way.

"When you first get hurt, you're wondering like, ‘Am I going to be able to come back from something like this?' But then you find out it's OK. There have been a lot of guys who came back," he said.

Then there was the pain of watching his teammates fall short last season. Green Bay was 4-4 while facing the Vikings. The Packers lost that game, part of a 2-6 close to the season. They allowed 25.3 points per game in that stretch as they wound up a disappointing 6-10.

"It just eats you up inside because you can't be out there," Barnett said. "Especially when we're losing, you're like, ‘Man, I can be out there helping. I just know that if i was out there, we could at least win some of these games.' It just hurts you to see that."

Helping Barnett making the mental recovery is outside linebacker Brady Poppinga, who tore an ACL late in his rookie season of 2005 but returned in time to play in all 16 games in 2006, with 12 starts. Barnett is doing his best to heed Poppinga's advice of not thinking about the injury while running and jumping on the knee.

Also part of the recovery is a new hairdo. It's not quite as long as the Steelers' Troy Polamalu but it looks about as wild and unruly.

"It's part of the healing process, I'll say that," Barnett said. "It's a mentality I've got going for this year. I don't want to reveal too much of that. You'll see once I put these pads on. It's a whole different mind-set."

The new defense will require a whole different mind-set, as well. Instead of lining up over the center, as he did in the old 4-3 alignment, he'll line up over a guard or tackle. A big change will come on passing downs, when Barnett often will be covering a tight end. Most of all, Barnett likes the unpredictability brought in coordinator Dom Capers' scheme.

"I'm excited about the new defense," he said. "The most exciting thing about the new defense to me is the changes of the coverages. We're able to do different things. We're not just running man coverage and calling it something else to sugarcoat that it's still man coverage. We're actually doing some zones, some different traps and doubles. It's a complicated defense."

So, when will he be part of the defense? At the start of training camp, Barnett hopes, though he might be a limited participant at first.

"I'll be playing football. I know that," he said.

Barnett is working overtime studying the playbook and watching film to help make up for his lack of practice time.

"I have to do the extra things so that when I come back, I'm not behind and they're like, ‘What the heck is going on?,'" Barnett said. "I'm doing everything I can so that I don't slow us down when it's time for me to come back."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at and Facebook.

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