GREEN BAY, Wis. — The cold reminder waited for him at his locker. Vic So’oto thought he might be a healthy scratch for the Green Bay Packers’ playoff game. Then, there it was. The inactive slip.
So’oto was not in uniform for Green Bay’s 37-20 loss to the New York Giants. The undrafted outside linebacker isn’t arguing, either.
“I don’t know,” So’oto said. “We were 15-1. I came into this game and had a great game plan. I just missed the opportunity so I don’t know if I would have done any better than what the guys did.”
That slip was a message. So’oto isn’t ready for Showtime. But now, he can do something about it. Coach Mike McCarthy sent a clear message Wednesday. While the Packers probably won’t splurge on high-priced free agents, they fully expect several players to make a jump this off-season.
Green Bay’s roster is infused with youth. Including the eight practice squad players signed to futures contracts and those on injured reserve, the Packers have 41 players who are 25 years old or younger. The thinking is that players such as Vic So’oto, running back Brandon Saine, quarterback Graham Harrell, defensive end Mike Neal and others will mature this off-season.
“We have depth on our football team,” McCarthy said. “We will always try to create as much competition as possible. The philosophy of drafting and developing, the philosophy of taking the best football player available. With that, that breeds competition in your program.”
So’oto could be one wild card at arguably the team’s worst position — right outside linebacker. A tight end-turned-defensive end at Brigham Young, the 6-3, 263-pounder appeared in only six games this season. He couldn’t gain the coaches’ trust. Even as the pass rush squandered, So’oto wasn’t considered a serious option. In the regular-season finale, he got his shot and sacked Matthew Stafford.
Not much was expected out of Green Bay’s two undrafted outside linebackers — So’oto and Jamari Lattimore. Rather than sneak a couple of veterans onto the roster who could’ve helped in the short term, the Packers went young. The payoff presumably begins next season.
This off-season, So’oto said he isn’t out to lose weight but plans to work out with a lower center of gravity.
“I have to train to play with a lower pad level,” So’oto said. “It’ll feel more natural than reminding myself that ‘I have to play lower, I have to play lower’ instead of being instinctively low just because you’ve done it over and over. That’s what I’ll be doing — staying low all off-season.”
This is only So’oto’s third year playing defense, period. At BYU, he was a 3-4 defensive end in a role similar to what Ryan Pickett fills in Green Bay, he said. All year, So’oto trained not knowing exactly how he’d be used in the NFL. Those long days in the weight room had a vague purpose. This off-season So’oto is training specifically as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
There’s youth everywhere. At cornerback, 2011 fourth-rounder Davon House played zero snaps on defense. Considering Jarrett Bush and/or Pat Lee could leave in free agency, House needs a strong off-season. Neal, hounded by injuries his first two NFL seasons, will enter the 2012 season with (welcomed) lower expectations. After having loose cartilage removed from his knee, he was never 100 percent in eight games.
“It’s been an uphill battle,” Neal said. “I’ve been at my lowest. I’m pretty sure that I’ll climb out of it. I’m not down about it. I’m not frustrated about it anymore. I understand that everything happens for a reason. I’ll be better next year.”
On offense — where Matt Flynn is likely to leave in free agency — Graham Harrell may become the new one-snap-away quarterback. While the new collective bargaining agreement zapped McCarthy’s off-season flexibility, Harrell will experience his first quarterback school in some form.
Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said this week that the school should help Harrell become a “master of the system.”
“We start from the basics, we start to learn the system, learn everything about the system,” Clements said. “Even things we might not utilize that much. You have to come away with a very good understanding of the offense. . . . The physical aspect, we just try to improve the fundamentals that they have to utilize during the course of a game or a season.”
And this is also a critical off-season for Green Bay’s running backs. There are no guarantees with this group.
The Packers planned to work third-rounder Alex Green into the offense by midseason and in Week 7 he tore his ACL. Undrafted Brandon Saine (138 total yards) got a chance and exceeded expectations. James Starks, dripping with potential, had trouble staying healthy a second straight season. And Ryan Grant, a late bloomer, could leave in free agency.
All this uncertainty gives Saine a chance to build on his momentum. The former Ohio State back didn’t botch assignments, earned more snaps and could be counted on more next year.
“He’s a kid that’s got good hands, can catch the ball out of the backfield,” running backs coach Jerry Fontenot said. “He’s got good speed when he breaks loose (and) he can make guys miss in the open field. He’s a very smart kid. The scheme and just understanding what’s going on and what’s expected of him within our offense, I think he picked it up very quickly. Whenever his number was called, he was ready.”
The sentiment to add players from the outside may be strong this off-season. This 32nd-ranked defense needs help. Before adding anyone, however, the Packers are aiming to improve from within. It may not earn Thompson any electorate votes, but that’s what he believes in.
Come next season, the coaches might be more confident in using So’oto, House, Saine or others.
So’oto got a 46-snap taste in Week 17 — just enough to keep him wanting more.
“When you do get a lot of playing time and you do get the feel of game tempo — live bullets, so to speak — then you can really gauge how much better you’ve gotten from previous games and the preseason games themselves,” So’oto said. “I feel I’ve gotten a lot better and there’s a lot of improvement left.”
Green Bay’s counting on mass improvement between now and training camp.