Colin Cole spent his first year in the league bouncing around the practice squads of two other teams in the NFC North before finding his niche with the Green Bay Packers.
"Getting that opportunity renewed my love for the game," he said.
Having found a comfort zone with the Packers, Cole has become an impact player after playing in just three games during the 2004 season. Cole plays 25 to 35 snaps a game as part of the coaching staff's interior line rotation. He has 37 tackles and a sack on the season.
"Colin Cole is playing very, very good football," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "He keeps getting better."
He has improved his performance by playing square and using his hands to disengage from opponents. The 6-2, 325-pounder has reaped the benefits of an intense offseason workout program with defensive tackle Corey Williams to become stronger and improve his footwork.
"It carried on over to the season," Williams said.
The hard work paid off as Cole responded with one of his best games of the season against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. He recorded five tackles, an unusually high total for defensive linemen, whose primary responsibility involves occupying blockers rather than making tackles.
He rattled quarterback Michael Vick during the third quarter. Guard Matt Lehr fired out on Cole, and Cole read the play-action pass. He eluded Lehr with a swim move and charged toward the quarterback. Only the 180-pound Warrick Dunn stood between him and Vick. Cole threw Dunn aside and pounced on Vick just as he threw the ball away to avoid the sack.
"I grabbed him. I jumped on him with all my weight," Cole said. "I shot out of a cannon on that one."
Cole's offseason has helped him develop that burst during his breakthrough season. But Cole had some of the skills, including strength, to succeed in the NFL. He needed a team like the Packers to take a chance on him.
"All along he was a pretty good player," said defensive end Aaron Kampman, who played with him for three years at Iowa. "He just needed his opportunities."
Cole toiled on two practice squads, never there long enough to become comfortable in either system. The Minnesota Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent on May 2, 2003. They waived him before re-signing him to the practice squad. On Oct. 1 they promoted him to the active roster before waiving him less than a week later.
In 2004 the Detroit Lions released him on Sept. 8 -- the day after they signed him to their practice squad. The Packers signed him on Sept. 16 and promoted him to the active roster on Nov. 30. His career has taken off since.
"I've always had these physical tools, but now it's the mental part of it that's come so far," Cole said. "I'm excited about football. I have fun. Every Sunday it's an experience that a lot of people don't get to have or enjoy. I'm actually doing something I've dreamed so long of doing."
Monday's game against the Vikings, a team that released him, will carry special meaning.
"I've enjoy the chance to get back out there and show them what they've been missing," he said.
Cole is not the only defensive lineman to step up this year. Sherman attributes the entire line as a major reason why the Packers rank 10th in total defense, up from 25th last year.
"The growth of our defensive line is the difference," Sherman said.
The 24-year old Cole is just one of the young Packers defensive linemen rounding into form this year. Williams, Kenny Peterson and Cullen Jenkins have spent less than three years in the NFL. Each benefited from on-the-job training last season, earning playing time while Grady Jackson missed five games due to a knee injury.
"I knew last year we were going to take some shots to our defensive line because of their youth and inexperience," Sherman said. "They really have progressed."
And Cole represents the strides made by the entire unit.
"He has improved tremendously," Williams said. "I take my hat off to the guy."