GREEN BAY, Wis. — The calls and text messages have flooded Jarrett Bush’s cell phone all week. He grew up an hour away from San Francisco. Most of his friends and family members are, naturally, 49ers fans.
So all week, they’ve been taunting the Green Bay Packers cornerback. Into the weekend, the count continued to rise.
“At least 20, at least 20,” Bush said. “Friends, family. Or friends of the friends.”
Not that it’s anything new to Bush. This is actually PG. So often, he’s been the go-to whipping boy on defense.
Bush’s Jekyll-and-Hyde game is no secret. He’s physical, gritty, a model of professionalism. And yet he’s also been a walking bull’s-eye for quarterbacks. His stint at nickel in 2009, in particular, did not go well.
Sunday, Bush may get his chance to reintroduce himself. The Packers have padlocked their plans at cornerback all summer, but Bush is listed as the starting right cornerback on the depth chart. Gradually, he has clawed his way back. With Charles Woodson playing safety in base, Bush may finally be counted on as a starter.
He’s not hiding. In 2012 — wherever he lines up — Bush promises to be a different player.
“I’m new and improved,” Bush said. “I’m older, wiser, faster, stronger. And I’m here to make plays. Shoot, I’m here to be dominant. I’m not out there just to be out there. I’m here to be dominant. I’ll tackle, knock some heads off and take some picks to the house.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity a long time.”
Such brazen confidence dates to 2006. An undrafted rookie out of Utah State, Bush lasted all training camp with the Carolina Panthers and was waived. Repeated Bush, “It’s tragic, it’s tragic.” He doesn’t want to forget that demoralizing, crushing emotion. It set a tone.
From there, Bush took a peculiar path to Green Bay.
Rare athleticism and speed typically spring NFL cornerbacks into action, into opportunities. Not Bush. He’s been a core special-teams player. A dime cornerback, Bush has started only seven of his 94 career games. With an increased role at the end of the 2009 season, he was toasted.
No one questions Bush’s energy, his all-out temperament.
“Second to none,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “The guy does not get tired. He practices so hard. He doesn’t take any day off.”
Adds safety Morgan Burnett, “In practice, from the first period to the end, you’ll see JB. He’s a hardworking guy.”
He’s not slow, either. Bush ran track in college. But the lifeblood of the passing game today is matchups. And in coverage, the 6-foot, 200-pound Bush has been exposed. He hasn’t been smooth or natural in one-on-one coverage, struggling to adjust to the ball. So when the Packers did slide Woodson to safety in their base defense, this had to be one concern. Cornerback Sam Shields is coming off a down season.
Through training camp, Bush held up. As others dropped out with injuries, he was effective.
In 2009, Bush said he was “still raw” and didn’t fully grasp coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme. Too often beaten badly, Bush drew his share of criticism. He hears some of it.
“For the most part, I don’t go looking for it,” Bush said. “I don’t go typing my name in and see what they’re saying about Bush. That’s not me. All in all, that’s your job — to write stories. My job is to play football. So you’re going to be the best you can, because that’s what you are as a writer. I’m not going to criticize what you guys do because that’s what you guys do. That’s just how I look at it.”
These past two years in dime — with a memorable interception in the Super Bowl along the way — Bush said he has matured quickly.
He watched more tape on his own. That pick off Ben Roethlisberger was the result of extensive film study, he said.
He stopped going to McDonalds. Eat Happy Meals? “You’ll play like one,” Bush said. So he started cooking more. Bush will eat salmon, chicken, steak, tilapia, spaghetti and keep all takeout orders to an absolute minimum.
In his basement, Bush spent more time with his “Body by Jake” machine. In addition to lifting at Lambeau Field, he spent more nights of core work at home.
“I learned that no matter what was said about me — coaches, players, media — I knew what I wanted,” Bush said. “I knew what I was capable of.”
Whitt wouldn’t say whether Bush or Shields would start Sunday. There’s a good chance the Packers use a combination of both players, as they did in the playoff loss to the New York Giants. They have different skills.
Either way, Whitt said Bush has improved during their four years together.
“Last year, he played as well as anyone in the secondary,” Whitt said. “His play and Wood’s play were at a high level. He had a limited role last year in what we wanted him to do. In that role, he played well. He’s covering better. He’s always physical. So that’s all in the past. The only thing that matters right now is 2012.”
The 49ers are Bush’s kind of opponent. Rugged and downhill. Early in camp, Bush sent a message with a wincing hit on teammate James Starks. A full-steam-ahead Frank Gore won’t intimidate him.
But again, the question with Bush is in coverage. If he starts, Bush will be tested early and often. Has he improved?
Now a weathered veteran, Bush said he’s ready.
“It’s not where you start,” Bush said, “it’s where you finish.”