Task grows even tougher for undrafed free agents

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

GREEN BAY—The back locker room is quiet, almost too quiet. Sometimes players sneak in a 10-minute nap. Many times, they’re buried in a playbook. Rarely are these undrafted rookies interrupted by a reporter.

This is the chilling calm before the cut. Two, maybe three of these players will last with the Green Bay Packers, and they know it.

Not that Ina Liaina will go down easy. The backup fullback speaks in a low rumble. Starting before last night’s loss to the Tennessee Titans at LP Field, he has one option.

“I’ve got to (expletive) somebody up,” Liaina said. “On those lead blocks, I’ve got to clear holes. That’s the only chance for me to make an impact.

“In the preseason, I’ve got to (expletive) somebody up.” August has always been stressful for anonymous reserves in the NFL. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, inked in July 2011, it’s more treacherous than ever. As coach Mike McCarthy noted on the eve of camp this year, the number of practices in Green Bay has shrunk from 35 to 29 to 21. Two-a-day practices are long gone.

This was one big win for the players in the lockout, but maybe the more appropriate word is “veterans.” First-year players are caught swimming upstream the NFL rapids.

“Hard,” tight end Jake Stoneburner cuts in, “hard upstream.”

All is not lost. A player can grit through an injury (see: Banjo, Chris) or agitate a veteran (see: Stoneburner, Jake). Green Bay, historically, gives undrafted free agents a chance, too. Yet the league’s current structure does them zero favors. Fewer practices leads to fewer reps and much less contact.

Opportunities to stand out are scarce.

These preseason games carry more significance than years past.

“It just comes down to crunch time,” Liaina said. “You’ve got to make the best of it, no matter if you’re getting one or two plays. That’s why you have to make the best out of special teams.

“It’s tough. But that’s the way it is.”

Learn fast

On the first (and only) carry he has received in 11-on-11 action, Liaina barreled his bowling-ball, 250-pound frame through linebacker Jake Doughty with scary, blunt force and spun off one yard shy of a touchdown.

“I was trying to get into the end zone,” Liaina said, “but tripped up.”

Who knows when he’ll touch the ball again?

Maybe no player faces longer odds. When his competition for a roster spot was making the season-saving play in Week 17 at Chicago, Liaina was working as a broker at Transamerica in San Jose, California. He spent one spring with the Miami Dolphins—that’s all.

With only 20-odd practices, the No. 1 challenge is learning (and applying) the playbook. Eight seasons in, John Kuhn has a doctorate in McCarthy’s offense. Liaina? His undergrad application is in the mail. So this is the Catch-22. Screw up assignments and you’re finished. Pink-slipped by Ted Thompson. But overthink, let a split-second hesitation set in, and you’re a gear slower than everyone else.

And in Liaina’s case, you’re granted two or three 11-on-11 reps a day.

“Man, that comes with a lot of focus,” Liaina said. “I really have to know I’m in the right place. That’s the thing about John, though. John’s smart. He knows the plays. He knows all his assignments.”

Kuhn has been helpful. Liaina says the vet is a virtual assistant coach in meetings.

Liaina swears his own confidence in the playbook is high. The Packers, he said, want the lead blocker to be ultraphysical in their revamped run game—a ray of hope for a bruiser like himself. And unlike other cities, the fullback position isn’t extinct here. In the all-important, mashing half-line drill, he gets about two snaps a day.

Last week was a double whammy for Liaina. He stayed in the Packers playbook, while running the Tennessee Titans’ plays off cards. At least with those cards, he said, “they show you pictures.” Special teams, coaches repeat, is the ticket to a roster spot. Liaina hopes one big collision gets him promoted from the third units.

To have any shot at making the team, Liaina can’t blend in.

Said the fullback, “I have to run over a guy.”

Play through pain

Trainers weren’t sure if Banjo should return. At first, they didn’t even know what the injury was.

The Packers were at Kansas City last August—in the midst of a 30-8 preseason throttling—and roster spots remained up for grabs.

“I knew that was something that doesn’t last forever,” Banjo said. “I knew that might have been my last NFL opportunity.”

Banjo did some running at halftime, proved he could play and then sucked up a piercing groin injury throughout the second half. His 14-yard sack of Tyler Bray—blitzing and bulling through a running back from the slot—sealed a roster spot.

That sack, he laughed, likely “numbed” the pain, too. The lesson: time is always ticking. You must play on.

This new CBA, Banjo acknowledged, hurts the third- and fourth-stringers, the raw talent on a roster.

“But the one thing about the NFL is it’s definitely not fair,” said Banjo, who had 15 tackles last season. “That being said, you’re still blessed to be in the situation that you are and you have to make the most of it.”

Peace of mind is essential, he adds, because the playbook can be intimidating. Banjo was able to connect concepts and plays within the iPad to speed up his learning curve. Those who simplify, who don’t stress, have the advantage.

Like Liaina, Banjo worked a desk job the season before his roster bid in 2013. Perspective can help a guy in that back room play loose.

Now, in Year 2, he’s less robotic. In one recent 2-minute drill, Banjo broke up a fourth-down pass intended for Randall Cobb. No longer is he in “follow this guy” mode as a defensive back.

Looking back, Banjo doesn’t know if he makes the team without that gutsy Chiefs game. He could be a guiding light for those in the back room, a voice of reason on capitalizing opportunities. Then again, pausing, Banjo knows his own job is still on the line.

“I’m just trying to make the most of mine,” he said.

Tick off a vet

Life at the St. Norbert College dorms doesn’t resemble anything Stoneburner experienced at Ohio State. Preseason camp under Jim Tressel was a flashback to the 1950s.

The Buckeyes stayed at a “terrible” hotel, one the tight end says was “barely” one-star worthy. Classes didn’t start until late September, so for nearly eight weeks, players lived in rooms with broken air-conditioning systems, leaking water, no vehicles and—one summer—no cellphones for a 1 week period.

When Urban Meyer took over, Stoneburner remembers being held on the field until 12:30 a.m. the first night of camp.

“We were like, ‘Wow. This is real. I don’t think this is legal.’ Like, ‘Hey, Coach, we have to wake up at 6 tomorrow,’” Stoneburner said.

No, Stoneburner isn’t too up in arms over the NFL’s new camp structure. Yet he knows this is a tricky balance. In college, the weak were weeded out through “dudes just smashing heads” day in and day out. In the pros, where multi-million-dollar investments roam, hitting has reached a historic minimum.

Which doesn’t give Joe Rookie many chances to turn heads.

Last year, Stoneburner learned that even if you infuriate a veteran in the process, you must go “balls to the wall all the time.” Kuhn helped him most, teaching Stoneburner that even if he’s only hitting a bag, crush the bag so coaches notice. Every speck of effort counts.

So there was Stoneburner during the Family Night scrimmage last summer, annoying Ryan Taylor with a jolt of adrenaline on special teams.

“He said, ‘What the hell, man!?’ And I’m like, ‘Sorry, I’m trying to make the team.’”

This can end badly, of course. Colt Lyerla took this thinking to another level in hurdling Jumal Rolle at last weekend’s Family Night. In 2014, with practices sliced and diced, with the ball heading your direction twice a week, undrafted rookies feel they must risk it.

Afterward, crutches in his locker, Lyerla expressed no regret. The consequential knee injury might have ended his camp. It certainly threatened his NFL chance.

Stoneburner gets it.

“Trying to make a play. Trying to get noticed,” Stoneburner said of Lyerla. “Heck, if you can leap a guy, why not do it?”

Like Banjo, Stoneburner repeats it’s all about getting onto special teams and making a play people remember. His moment was a touchdown at St. Louis. And like Banjo, he’s still an underdog.

That’s why Stoneburner stays in Scott Tolzien’s ear all day, asking for the ball. One recent three-day stretch, Stoneburner kept getting open, to no avail.

“Sometimes I’m wide open,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘Hey bro, I can’t make the team if you’re not throwing it to me!’”

Such is the life for a young player in 2014.

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