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Harrell Begins Important Offseason


Defensive tackle Justin Harrell said his position coach, Robert Nunn, was pretty blunt and straightforward about his assessment of the 2007 first-round draft pick's rookie campaign.

"He said I was two different players at times," Harrell said this week, having returned from the winter break to begin the offseason program with other first- and second-year players. "Sometimes I'd go out there and do a great job, all my fundamentals were down. Then at times, my fundamentals were lacking.

"And you could tell the big cut-off between those two players."

That gap is what Harrell is determined to close, if not eliminate, in his second season, and the Packers are counting on it. With the Corey Williams trade last month and Johnny Jolly's recovery from shoulder surgery lasting until at least the start of training camp, there's an open starting position on the interior of the defensive line alongside Ryan Pickett that seemingly has Harrell's name on it.

What Harrell and Nunn believe will help the mammoth (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) Tennessee alum seize that spot is his first offseason program, which began this week. Now is when there's sufficient time to concentrate on those fundamentals.

"Especially for a defensive lineman, the offseason program is so important, in my experience, up to their third or fourth year," Nunn said. "They've got to have the repetition with everything, just doing it over and over and over, to where they can do it fast and not feel like they're in a hurry to do it, if that makes sense.

"He's got to play fast and not be in a hurry."

Adding to the value of the here-and-now for Harrell is he has yet to have an offseason program as part of his NFL foundation.

Last year at this time, Harrell was visiting teams around the country in preparation for the draft and unable to maintain a steady workout schedule. Then upon being selected by Green Bay with the 16th pick overall, he was held out of mini-camp practices and OTAs as a precaution while he continued to recover from the torn bicep tendon that cost him all but three games of his senior season at Tennessee.

So when Harrell got back to full-speed work in training camp - roughly 10 months since playing his last game - and proceeded to take the field for his first pro contests, the uneven play and inconsistency with his fundamentals were not a huge surprise.

"It was really kind of a roller coaster," Nunn said. "You'd see things that you'd think, 'Wow,' and then you'd see the next play where he was not playing fast.

"Consistency, that's his No. 1 thing to improve on. Being consistent when he lines up in there and playing fast and playing with proper technique."

In addition to a strength and conditioning regimen, technique will be a main focus of Harrell's during the offseason workouts with Nunn and the other defensive linemen.

Harrell felt his technique was most sound last season in his first pro start (for an injured Pickett) in Chicago. A bright spot on an otherwise dismal December day for the Packers, Harrell held his own at the point of attack against guard Roberto Garza and perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, and tackled Bears running back Adrian Peterson on two of the first three snaps of the game.

He went on to post a career-high nine total tackles (five solo) in that game, which had its ups and downs for Harrell just like the season as a whole. He finished the regular season with 24 tackles (13 solo).

"It starts with your first step, not over-striding, working on staying square, shooting your hands fast, getting your hands on people," Harrell said of the fundamentals that would come and go. "You know you're out there with grown men, so you have to be ready to play every snap."

Harrell was actually getting closer to that point long before the late-season game in Chicago. Back on Oct. 7, in the first meeting with the Bears, he brought down running back Cedric Benson for a 1-yard loss. He added another tackle the following week against Washington in Week 6, and Nunn said at that time he was "coming on pretty strong."

{sportsad300}But after the bye week, Harrell badly injured his ankle in practice on Oct. 23 and missed the next five games. Nunn said watching the videotape of the injury, Harrell was lucky it wasn't a season-ender, because it was a "significant twist."

The way Harrell recovered from the setback, though, to perform when needed down the stretch with Jolly and Colin Cole (forearm) out for the season, showed Nunn another side to the young prospect. From a mental and emotional standpoint, Harrell was tough enough to bounce back when other young players might have let their frustrations get the best of them. And having seen him handle that, Nunn feels Harrell will be fine with the added expectations, internal and external, coming in his second year.

"Every time we asked him to work on something, you would see the improvement on the tapes, so that's very encouraging," Nunn said. "But he's still not there yet where we want him to be, so this is where we start."

'This' is now, the offseason program, for which Harrell will likely get the lion's share of reps with the No. 1 defense alongside Pickett when mini-camps and OTAs roll around in the late spring. That should only help him along the learning curve, building upon the extensive fundamental work over the next couple of months.

"Most definitely," Harrell said. "It's time for me to come out and hold up my end of the whole bargain. When they drafted me in the first round, that was a big thing, and they're expecting big things from me. I need to get myself ready."

To become one player instead of two. And fast, but not in a hurry.

"People are too good in this league, you can't just go out there and will yourself to being a great player," Nunn said. "You have to go out there and build it, brick by brick, and have a strong foundation underneath you and be patient with that. And I think he's bought into that."

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