By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The time at Lambeau Field isn’t enough. Learning the safety position in this defense requires more than 9-to-5 attention. M.D. Jennings knows this. That’s why he never leaves his notebook at the locker.
After each practice — back at his place — the Green Bay Packers’ safety rewrites all of his notes. Everything safeties coach Darren Perry, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and teammates said that day is copied down again. He drills plays, assignments, checks, all nuances of the position into his head for an hour and a half minimum.
He doesn’t play music. He doesn’t do this with anybody else.
“It helps a lot because after I rewrite them and go over them a time or two,” Jennings said, “if coach says something or I see a formation, I can see it off my notepad.”
Every second helps. Come training camp, Jennings will be a legitimate contender at safety. With Charlie Peprah sidelined after arthroscopic knee surgery this off-season, the second-year pro has been working with the first team next to Morgan Burnett. A year ago, the undrafted safety from Arkansas State shocked most outsiders by making the team. Now, Capers says he’ll “be right in the competition of things.”
The coach likes Jennings’ lunch-pail approach.
“He has made real progress from the first year,” Capers said. “He’s bigger, stronger. He’s all business. We’re going to have outstanding competition at most of the positions on defense. . . . He comes to work every day and he’s all business. And I think he’s a lot better football player right now than he was any time last year.”
Indeed, the 6-foot, 187-pound safety is one of the quietest, nose-to-grindstone players in the secondary. “All business,” as Capers said, he rarely strays from yes-sir, no-sir protocol. On Arkansas State’s defense, Jennings shouldered a lot of responsibility. While the school won’t be admitted to the SEC any time soon, Jennings said the concepts their defense used parallel those in Capers’ scheme.
He’s comfortable. In college, Jennings made all of the checks. So even when the lockout hijacked last year’s off-season, Jennings wasn’t completely overwhelmed.
“We did all the safety stuff that we’re doing here in Green Bay,” said Jennings, who had 86 tackles, three interceptions and four passes defended in 2010.
“At Arkansas State, they put most of it on the safeties to make all the checks. The coaches do a great job of teaching technique, and it’s basically the same techniques that we use here in the NFL.”
This summer, defensive coaches hope competition helps spark a turnaround. Safety is a prime example. Peprah hasn’t been shy in expressing his desire to be the starter — and a Pro Bowl player. Fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian and Anthony Levine also will be in the running.
More than anything, Jennings needs experience. Needs reps. The nightly study sessions help, but it doesn’t mask the fact that he has all of 10 NFL snaps under his belt. A year ago, Jennings didn’t play one snap with the No. 1 defense in practice. Peprah? He has eclipsed 900 regular-season snaps in back-to-back seasons.
To unseat Peprah, Jennings must continue making more plays like he did at Green Bay’s first organized team activity. Last week, he scooped underneath a low Aaron Rodgers pass for an interception.
Confidence — being willing to shout directions on the back end — has been key to Jennings’ growth.
“M.D. is a more a quiet guy,” Capers said. “Back there, you have to be an assertive guy that makes the calls, anticipation, take charge. I see him making strides in those areas. He’s bigger and stronger. He’s done a good job in the weight room. I think he’s had pretty good range. But I’ve seen him show up a little bit more.”
To successfully play safety in this defense, Capers added that football instincts and range are essential.
“A lot of safeties might not be the fastest in the world but if they anticipate, they’ll get a step on people because they’re breaking before the next guy’s ready,” Capers said.
Jennings hopes that’ll be a strength for him. He finished No. 5 academically in his graduating class of 47 at Calhoun City (Miss.) High School. In college, he carried a 3.4 GPA.
And as he used his smarts at safety, Jennings looked up to Darren Sharper and Troy Polamalu — two Pro Bowl players who rely heavily on their homework, on instincts.
Come August, the Packers will need to fill Nick Collins’ void somehow. His ability to blanket the field was missed sorely in 2011. For now, Peprah likely remains the front-runner.
But behind him, Jennings may be first in line.
“The biggest thing — the way I look at it — is I want to win the guys over,” Jennings said. “Guys don’t want to play with someone they really can’t trust.”