One offseason focus for Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been ending the merry-go-round on his offensive line.
Unlike the past couple of years, the Packers' top linemen were able to focus on one position. The one upper-echelon lineman that didn't pertain to was rookie fourth-round pick T.J. Lang, who spent his practices shuttling between right guard and right tackle.
"He seems very natural at playing either tackle or guard, and that's something we've had a number of players be able to come in here and do that at the offensive line position," coach Mike McCarthy said last month. "That's the way you're able to go from the 53 to the 45 and be able to play on Sundays. That's something he's shown right away. Athletically, there's days I thought he was a tackle, there's days I think he's a guard. So, that tells you about where his flexibility is physically. Very happy with him."
Lang spent the offseason as the second-string right guard and right tackle. With both of those starting positions open — with incumbent right guard Jason Spitz moving to center and veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher out of the equation — Lang certainly hasn't been ruled out as a potential starter.
"We'll just see how that shakes out," offensive line coach James Campen said. "That's a good-looking 315-pound kid. Very smart kid."
He's also smart. Lang, a three-year starter at Eastern Michigan who his collegiate offensive line coach said was the second-best lineman in the state of Michigan behind Miami Dolphins star Jake Long, has had little trouble handling the back-and-forth from a mental standpoint.
During one practice while at right tackle, Lang handled a stunt in which the defensive end crashed inside and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop sped to the outside. Waiting to stop Bishop in his tracks was Lang. That snapshot illustrates how well Lang has handled the constant barrage of blitzes that Dom Capers' defense throws at an offense.
That Lang has been quick on his feet should come as no surprise. Lang spent his first season at Eastern Michigan on the defensive line, moved to right tackle as a sophomore — becoming the starter from Day 1 — and handled the duties at left tackle as a junior and senior. While he handled Northern Illinois star Larry English three times while at EMU, he hasn't faced nearly the diversity and quality of players he's tangled with at practice in B.J. Raji, Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga. Going from a big guy like Raji on one play to a quicker linebacker like Kampman on the next has only increased the challenge and sped up his learning curve.
"It's just a matter of learning different footwork and a matter of learning about going against different guys, especially in the 3-4," Lang said. "If you're playing guard, you're going against a big, hefty defensive tackle or a big 330-pound (defensive) end. When you're playing tackle, you're going against really quick guys like Aaron and Brady. The biggest adjustment is probably the speed that you see. When you're playing tackle, you're seeing outside linebackers rush off the edge. It's definitely tough. It's physically challenging. Playing guard, it's still challenging, but you're going against guys that aren't so quick."
Lang's play has impressed quarterback Aaron Rodgers, among others.
"The most impressive, I think, has been T.J.," Rodgers said when asked about the rookie linemen. "He's really been getting after Brady a little bit. He's doing a nice job. Big, strong kid. There's going to be a lot of competition once training camp hits."
When camp starts on Aug. 1, Lang will be behind Josh Sitton at right guard and in the mix with Breno Giacomini behind Allen Barbre at right tackle. With all of the offense installed during four weeks of organized team activities, Lang will be able to focus more on playing than learning another chapter of the playbook. He looked sure of himself during shorts-and-helmets practices, and the coaches are particularly excited to watch the powerful Lang battle in the full-speed setting of training camp.
"It's been a challenge. I'm still trying to get used to playing on the right side, period, after spending (two) years on the left," he said. "I'm starting to get better at it. I've had about a month on the right side, so I'm feeling a little bit more comfortable. Now, it's just letting my talent take over."
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