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REFLECTIONS ON TRAINING CAMP

by Jerry Gilbert
I truly enjoy the spectacle that is a Green Bay Packer Training Camp. Every year some unknown rookie will make a play or two, the newspapers will feature him in an article, and fans across the world will get excited about the potential of such past luminaries as Terdell Sands, Devin Lewis and Erwin Swiney. I currently believe that Leigh Torrence could be an NFL cornerback, but, realistically, he will not be on the roster this season unless someone gets hurt. Among the young linebackers who are causing a buzzNick McNeil, Roy Manningthey are long shots to stick with the team.

One of the issues that clouds training camp evaluations is injuries. The offensive line could not block the Buffalo defensive line in Fridays scrimmage; however, they were working without Matt ODwyer and Bubba Franks. Atlas Herrion and William Whitticker are interesting prospects, but neither is ready to face Sam Adams on an every down basis, and only one of them is likely to be with the team as the season opens. Were this the regular season, Grey Ruegamer (now at left guard) or Mark Tauscher (the right tackle) would have filled in for the injured Matt ODwyer. Franks would have helped with pass protection and the running game in ways that Ben Steele cannot even dream of doing.

Injuries also obscure the situation at linebacker. Ray Thompsons absence from many of the practice sessions has put Hannibal Navies with the first team and has deprived Nail Diggs of repetitions at strong side linebackerthe position he is most likely to play in Jim Bates defense. Draftees Brady Poppinga, a strong side candidate, and Kurt Campbell, a weak side prospect, are both in shorts watching the action. A player such as Zac Woodfin looks like more of a prospect without Thompson and Campbell in the picture. Leigh Torrence is a starter when Al Harris and Joey Thomas are missing. Andre Thornton and Vince Butler are now second team receivers, but they are not likely to beat out the injured Terrence Murphy or Craig Bragg for the final roster spot.

The defensive backfield situation is another place where injuries are the main story. Rookie Nick Collins could be the game changing playmaker at safety which the Packers need, but he has been limping during much of training camp. At corner, practices are showing that Ahmad Carroll remains a project, who may never develop the discipline to be a starter in the league. That leaves the position to Joey Thomas, but he is watching from the sidelines unable to show whether he may be adequate. The absence of Thomas and Collins also makes it more difficult to find a nickel back

Another position impacted by the injury bug is kick returner. Injured rookie Terence Murphy is missing the reps he needs to learn the punt returner position, and fellow draft choice Craig Bragg was just injured in the Family Night scrimmage. The candidates to replace Antonio Chatman have been unable to mount a challenge. The preliminary good news at this position is that Chatman has shown he can improve when challenged, and he is looking very good as both a receiver and a return man. The injury to Najeh Davenport Friday night complicates the Kick Return position.

The number of walking-wounded among the 2005 draft choices is troubling. One has to be concerned if the scouting staff uncovered every issue. The conduct of the mini-camps and training camp should also be reviewed. Is there something happening, or is a preventative measure lacking, that is resulting in unnecessary injuries? A new grass was recently installed in Clark Hinkle field. That, the conditioning program, and every other aspect of the operation should be studied; too many young players are in the training room when they should be at practice.

Accentuating the positive, there are a great many reasons for optimism that are emerging from the early days of Training Camp. One is the enthusiasm and teaching that Jim Bates is bringing to the defense. The player s are drilling on creating turnovers. The system encourages players to fly around and make plays. The presence of a number of athletic new players also provides a basis to hope for improvements on special teams.

Another positive is the overall quality of the players. Recent camps of the past have featured forgetables, such as Akili Smith and Tim Couch. Both of them threw so many errant passes that receivers were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to get better. In other camps, I have watched free agent receivers who could not consistently catch with their hands. I have seen defensive backs who, even in drills, were always beaten by receivers such as Scottie Vines or Carl Ford, and beaten worse by Donald and Javon. That is not happening at this camp. Every quarterback can complete the basic passes. All the corner back prospects from Mike Hawkins to Chris Day can consistently run with the receivers. There are no 350 pound long shots in the defensive front.

That said, while the overall depth should be adequate, there is a notable absence of front-runners at several positions. At the all-important offensive guard position, Coach Larry Beightol is currently rotating platoons with the starters. Veteran free agents Adrian Klemm and Matt ODwyer have not won their jobs. At linebacker, only Nick Barnett is established. Nail Diggs will start, but on which side will depend on the other starter. The nickel backers are also to be determined. The cornerback position opposite Al Harris, and both safety positions are also in flux. With Bubba Franks unsigned and David Martin injured, the tight end position is a complete unknown.

The early days of Training Camp present that wonderful time when every team is undefeated and every player has a chance to make his team. Poor performances can be explained away because there is still plenty of time to correct the problems. Great performances must be viewed with the perspective that it is not yet for real. Being at practice for four days was a memorable experience, which I hope to repeat in the future. It is an atmosphere without equal, but it is not real life. As we dream of what may be, we have to consider what has been and what may never be. However, Brett Favre will run the offense and there appears to be a competent defensive coordinator in town. How bad can it be?

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