GREEN BAY – Last year, tight end Jace Sternberger made a wildly successful transition from junior college to the Southeastern Conference, the premier college football league in the land.
But he’s not about to assume he’ll make his next move, to the NFL, look so easy.
“You’re playing with grown men now,” Sternberger said late last week during rookie minicamp. “You’re not playing with 18- and 19-year-olds anymore. You’re playing with a lot of people who have been doing this and they’re really good at what they do. That’s the reason they’ve been playing for so long, so it’s going to be a learning experience.”
Fortunately, the Packers’ third-round draft pick out of Texas A&M almost couldn’t be in a better situation to learn.
He has one of the top pass-catching downfield threats at tight end of the last decade in Jimmy Graham to help with the nuances of NFL routes and coverages. He also has one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, Marcedes Lewis, to assist with that part of his game, where he has the furthest to go.
The 6-foot-4, 251-pound Sternberger feels the draft process for him quickly went from a relief – finally having a place to go and settle in – to a blessing and a great opportunity behind two established veterans and Pro Bowl players.
“I feel like any kid who’s grown up watching sports – I grew up watching half these guys in the locker room – and you dream of doing what they do,” he said. “So how could you not listen to everything they say and soak it up like a sponge?”
Sternberger actually got to meet Graham when he first arrived in Green Bay last week, and the Packers’ No. 1 tight end shared that the veteran who showed him the ropes nine years ago in New Orleans was Jeremy Shockey, who’s from Sternberger’s home state of Oklahoma.
That’s where Sternberger retreated to after his first two seasons of college football at Kansas didn’t work out. He enrolled at Northeastern Oklahoma (NEO) A&M, about three hours from his hometown of Kingfisher.
Sternberger actually had to work his way up the depth chart there despite being a transfer from a Big 12 school, but he rolled with it. It helped establish the take-nothing-for-granted attitude he’s bringing to the start of his NFL career.
“You have to have that approach everywhere,” he said. “No one cares where you’ve been or what you’ve done. You’re at a new place. You have to establish yourself, you have to prove yourself. I try to have that mindset everywhere I’ve gone. That’s how I was at NEO, that’s how I have to be now.”
He’ll quickly catch the eye of Packers fans wearing Jordy Nelson’s old number, 87. He said he’s not trying to step into a franchise great’s shoes by any means, but he does think it’s “really cool” to have the No. 87 for a tight end, as it’s been worn by stars like Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
Sternberger’s one standout year at Texas A&M would indicate he has a chance to follow a similar path. In earning first-team All-America honors from several outlets, he averaged an eye-popping 17.3 yards per catch (48 receptions, 832 yards) and caught 10 touchdown passes in a conference known for playing top-flight defense.
As the season wore on and he was no longer a surprise weapon, Sternberger said he faced some different coverages and more physical play from defenders, but he adjusted along with it in Jimbo Fisher’s spread attack with the Aggies.
The instant impact in the SEC was impressive, but again, Sternberger knows it won’t just happen that way in the NFL if he takes any time to relish it.
He’s starting over again, and it’s time to get to work.
“I think it goes all the way back to how I prepare myself,” he said. “I truly believe what you do on the practice field translates over to the game field.
“I’m super hard on myself, I’m very demanding of myself. Even the little things that people might let slide, I’m still thinking about it at home at night. I just try to hold myself to a higher standard.”