GREEN BAY – Oren Burks will have to keep his head in the playbook just like any other rookie, but don’t be surprised if the mental transition to the NFL game goes rather smoothly for him.
It’s not just his Vanderbilt education, which will definitely help. There are multiple factors beyond that.
For one, he played various positions for the Commodores, starting his college career as a safety before moving to a hybrid outside linebacker spot and then finally inside linebacker to conclude his career. He handled those mental gymnastics with relative ease.
In addition, Burks noted during the Packers’ rookie orientation that Derek Mason, Vanderbilt’s head coach who doubled as defensive coordinator when Burks played there, along with inside linebackers coach Chris Marve, both emphasized learning the entire scheme, not just specific responsibilities.
“We had to know our whole defense,” Burks said. “Coach Mason really prided (the staff) on teaching us football, so I feel like that gives me a leg up, just knowing the game from a lot of different perspectives.
“New terminology is the main thing now.”
There will be plenty of that, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy has echoed a comment first made by veteran safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix about new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense – that it’s “likeable and learnable.”
All that sets the table, perhaps, for Burks to hit the ground running as a rookie, though the proof will be in the playing. Even as quickly and thoroughly as Stanford’s Blake Martinez learned Dom Capers’ defense, he’s said many times it took until his second season before he stopped thinking too much and just cut himself loose.
If Pettine’s system speeds up that process, a Packers defense that is likely to see several first- and second-year players taking on significant roles, particularly in the secondary, will be better for it.
Burks’ early niche might be using his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame and sub-4.6 speed to match up with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage, while his body type is ideal for special teams as well.
While the Packers have tried over the past couple of years to convert safeties Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones into sub-package inside linebackers, Burks may be a better fit because he’s already a converted safety – a couple of years and 20 pounds ago.
“The game is moving toward faster, more athletic linebackers, so I’m glad to fill that void,” said Burks, whose career-long positional switching included playing as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end at times in high school.
“Near the end of my career at Vanderbilt, I knew inside (linebacker) was going to be the best position for me moving forward, using my athleticism and being able to play off the ball, play sideline to sideline, show off that range a little bit.”
The Packers were interested in that range all along, hosting Burks on a pre-draft visit and then trading up 13 spots – from the first pick of the fourth round (No. 101) to late in the third round (No. 88) – to choose Burks on the second night of the draft.
Burks wants to “live up to” the belief the Packers have in him, and starting with a football IQ like his certainly won’t hurt. He has a few Vanderbilt academic honors to his name and a younger sister, Whitney, who’s a softball star at Stanford, so the smarts have been part of the package all along.
“From very early on, our parents emphasized academics, staying on top of your work, being disciplined, that type of thing,” Burks said. “It’s all kind of carried over to me and my sister being successful.
“She’s a material engineer at Stanford, so all of her stuff is way over my head. It’s impressive how much she’s able to balance.”
Now it’s up to Burks to find the right balance between knowing the defense and not thinking too much on the field, like Martinez did before his game took off last season.
How he sorts it all out will probably determine the level of impact he’ll make as a rookie.
“The time is here,” he said. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, so I can’t let it go by.”