GREEN BAY, Wis. — First, there was shock. Then, disbelief.
A frozen Jerron McMillian stared at his computer screen, trying to decipher this email. He was invited to the NFL scouting combine. But he didn’t believe it. Maybe this was a cruel joke. Quickly, McMillian called a combine official to confirm.
“I had to double-check,” McMillian said. “When I got the email, I had to make a phone call.”
The Maine strong safety was, indeed, invited to Indianapolis. And now he’s one candidate to replace a three-time Pro Bowler. Life without Nick Collins has begun, and it includes this fourth-round pick. Since 2005, Collins has been a constant threat, a constant presence. Without him, Green Bay allowed more passing yards than any other team in NFL history.
It’s far too early to draw up a depth chart. But no position on the Packers’ roster is more unsettled than safety. Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett are the incumbent starters. M.D. Jennings and Anthony Levine, virtual redshirts in 2011, face a critical off-season. Coaches hinted during the weekend at moving Charles Woodson to safety.
And then, there’s the unknown: this 5-foot-11, 201-pound missile from the Colonial Athletic Association with a 4.36 in the 40 and a 39-inch vertical leap.
“It’s tough right now,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “We’re young more than anything else. We’ve got some guys that have to grow up very quickly in Levine and Jennings. You’ve got a veteran in Charlie, and Morgan it was kind of like his rookie year last year. Those guys are still growing as young football players, but I think overall with what we did as a defensive unit, you’ve got to be excited about that, and we’ll have to do our part.”
General manager Ted Thompson addressed his sagging pass rush quickly and aggressively. Both USC’s Nick Perry and Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy could start from Day 1. Now, the questions lie at safety. This draft, there was a steep drop-off after Alabama’s Mark Barron and Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith. McMillian admits he was just hoping to get drafted.
But he also brings what the Packers lacked in 2011. He tackles. At Maine, McMillian roamed close to the line of scrimmage with coaches blitzing him often. As a senior, McMillian finished with 92 tackles (11.5 for loss) and 3.5 sacks.
“He’ll try to kill you. He’ll try to take you out,” said Steven Vashel, McMillian’s defensive backs coach who is now at Yale. “He’s that type of a physical player. He has a good knack for pass rush. He’s always trying to anticipate the play. He’ll see it and he’ll attack it. He really got better at that these past two years. He became a student of the game.”
Thompson deserves the benefit of the doubt with this pick. What with gambling on some obscure safety from Bethune-Cookman in 2005. A small-ball prospect himself, McMillian says he has looked up to Collins for a while.
He calls him “Big Hit Nick.” Collins was always around the ball.
“Somehow, he always made a big play, whether it’s causing a fumble, getting a pick, making a tackle, he was always in a good position to make plays,” McMillian said. “So when I watched games I always said, ‘Where’s Big Hit Nick? Where’s 36 at?’ ”
Maine actively recruits players who have received zero scholarship offers. Coach Jack Cosgrave seeks the snubbed recruit to feed an us-against-world fervor. McMillian was a player who epitomized this, Vashel said. Coaches had to teach him how to tame his emotions.
Once, McMillian received an unsportsmanlike penalty for trash-talking when he was actually shouting in excitement toward a teammate. And per Vashel, the December 2010 disorderly conduct charge against McMillian wasn’t deserved. At a nightclub, he said, an altercation broke out and McMillian went over to see if his friend was OK. Vashel said the safety was merely “sticking up for himself.” When authorities reviewed tape of the incident, charges were dropped.
“He’s not going to let himself be walked over by anybody,” Vashel said. “You kind of like that. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. Was it out of character? It wasn’t out of character for him to stick up for himself.
“He’s not one of those guys who was privileged. He didn’t come from the University of Wisconsin, and nothing against Wisconsin, but you could get anything you want. This kid was in his own sweats at the University of Maine. He can appreciate the little things. He’s very honored.”
One unknown is how McMillian will operate in open space against today’s prolific spread offenses. At Maine, Trevor Coston played free safety. Coston was the rangy safety and earned an NFL gig himself, signing with the Chicago Bears after the draft.
So that’s where the other safeties in Green Bay may have a head start. Offenses today can flex defensive backs into bad situations. And in Green Bay’s defense, safeties are often interchangeable. Woodson is already used in a multitude of ways. A decision on Woodson may be tied to how quickly second-round cornerback Casey Hayward develops and if third-year corner Sam Shields rebounds.
Expect all safeties to have a shot. Jennings played only 10 defensive snaps in 2011. And he was fine with that. An undrafted pickup last season, he’s also hoping to compete this training camp. A full off-season will help him and Levine as much as anyone.
“Last year, we got in at the end of July and everything was thrown at us so fast we were taking in everything on the run,” Jennings said. “This year, we have an off-season with the OTAs and minicamps. We can sit back and take things one day at a time.”
Whoever gives the Packers the greatest peace of mind at safety will win the job. This is a defense that has always forced turnovers under Dom Capers. Green Bay has 85 interceptions over the last three seasons. But in 2011, 71 pass plays of 20-plus yards cost the Packers.
“We’ve got big challenges ahead of us,” Perry said, “and our biggest challenge is to be consistent and eliminate big plays _ too many big plays, way too many and coach Dom has been on it, and we’ve all looked at it.”
The initial reaction to Collins’ departure was drafting McMillian.
McMillian thought his visit to Green Bay before the draft went well. Coaches picked his brain on how he played the run as they cycled through film. Dinner at a local steakhouse went smoothly, too. But when the safety didn’t hear from the Packers again, he was a little worried. He wondered if they had lost interest.
Now, he’ll have a chance to replace the Packer he admired. This is a little daunting, he admits.
“A little bit, a little bit,” McMillian said. “He did so much in a short span. Now, I’m walking in. I don’t want people looking at me like I am Nick Collins. It’s a tough situation. But you have to get into it. You have to do what you know best.”
(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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