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Young CBs Out To Prove Themselves

Posted Jun 1, 2010

When the Green Bay Packers didn't draft any cornerbacks this past April, it was probably a relief to young players at the position like Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee, both talented but unproven.

But it was also a message that their time to prove themselves is now, and they're getting that chance during organized team activities (OTAs) with the team's top three corners - Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Tramon Williams - absent from the field.

Underwood has been working as a starting cornerback with the No. 1 defense opposite veteran Jarrett Bush, while Lee has been the nickel, or third corner, in the primary sub package. Those kinds of reps are invaluable for young players, especially ones being asked to shore up what became a significant shortcoming down the stretch last season - depth amidst the cover corners.

"Coach Joe (Whitt Jr.) said to us today, out of the young guys he wants us to show every day like a game day," Underwood said of their approach during these OTAs. "He's stressing that he wants all the young guys to learn everything. Right now Joe is pushing everybody to compete and help each other out the best way we can."

Finding quality, reliable depth at cornerback would help out the defense immeasurably. Last season, after Harris was lost for the season to a knee injury, reinforcements were needed, but Lee already was on injured reserve, as was Will Blackmon (who has since been moved to safety), and Underwood was just a rookie with minimal playing time.

After the pass defense struggled so much late in the year against Pittsburgh and Arizona (in the NFC Wild Card game), it was widely assumed the Packers would use the draft to replenish the position. But instead they're counting on youngsters like Underwood and Lee to take major steps forward.

For Underwood, simply maturing beyond that rookie season will make a difference. A sixth-round draft choice out of Cincinnati in 2009, Underwood came to Green Bay a raw prospect with just one year of notable college experience to his credit after playing sparingly for two seasons at Ohio State and then sitting out a year as a transfer.

Then last year, he was learning not only the pro game but also defensive coordinator Dom Capers' complex 3-4 scheme, and Cincinnati's school schedule forced him to miss three weeks of OTAs, leaving him to learn on the run in training camp. Then after a rough night in the preseason finale at Tennessee, he was inactive for the first four regular-season games before beginning to see the field and work through some of those growing pains.

Now in his second season, Underwood said the biggest difference for him is just his knowledge of the defense, which has grown even more than he thought it would. Meanwhile, Head Coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday called him a candidate for most improved player from last year's rookie class.

"I think he's really matured in the weight room," McCarthy said. "He looks very good right now. I know we're only practicing in shorts and helmets, but I think Brandon Underwood is off to an outstanding spring so far."

During Wednesday's open workout, Underwood had the defense pretty fired up when he made a great break on a hook route to receiver Greg Jennings and batted the ball away, nearly intercepting it. Last year he had similar trouble with finishing those potential big plays, so that remains his next step.

"I can catch the ball, but I want to be able to show that in practice," he said. "For me to be able to have opportunities, I need to come up with those plays. I'm going to put that pressure on my shoulders, because I know I can do it."

Lee is putting just as much pressure on himself, but for different reasons. A second-round draft pick out of Auburn in 2008, Lee has played in just five games in two seasons, mostly due to injury.

{sportsad300}A knee injury cost him the final five games of his rookie season, and then after missing the first three preseason games of '09 with a back problem, he sustained another knee injury in the preseason finale and landed on injured reserve, out for the year.

"It's been very frustrating, but that's the game," Lee said. "Once I get my opportunity, I will go out there and show what I can do.

"I have a lot to prove, yeah. I have to go out there and do what I have to do. I feel like this is it for me if I don't."

Lee said the bone bruise that put him on IR last year is not giving him any problems now, and he feels fine physically. During the first open OTA in May, Lee made a nice pass break-up when he cut off tight end Jermichael Finley on a crossing route, and later in 7-on-7, he intercepted a deflected ball. Those types of impact plays continued this week, according to McCarthy.

"Pat, every time he gets on the field, he makes plays," McCarthy said. "He has this injury hurdle that hopefully he has cleared. I'm excited about his participation and what he has shown so far in the OTAs."

It helps that Underwood and Lee have veterans like Woodson and Harris to learn from as their games mature. Both young players noted they've tried to absorb from the elders what it means to be a professional in their work, and exemplify it regularly.

"Just be patient and wait your turn," Lee said of a key lesson passed down. "Learn everything, stay in the (play)book and when it's time to come up, you'll be ready."

The Packers are counting on it.

 
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