During the third game of the preseason, rookie right guard William Whitticker faced off against New England Patriots and three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour on several occasions with ugly results. Seymour clogged up running lanes and penetrated during pass plays.
"He got the best of me. That was a learning experience," said Whitticker, knowing he would fare much better in a rematch. "It would be a different story because I'd be better prepared to go against him."
Now halfway through the first regular season of his professional career, Whitticker has made great strides.
"He's much more improved now than he was in Week 1," center Scott Wells said. "He's developing as an overall player."
That development has become most evident during passing plays. Although Whitticker has allowed quarterback pressures, he has not surrendered a sack all season despite facing some stout defensive lines, including those of the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
"You can't have that. You can't give up sacks," Whitticker said. "I want to keep Brett (Favre) as clean as I can."
Whitticker has kept Favre clean for two main reasons. Linebackers and defensive linemen cannot easily force Whitticker, the Packers' largest offensive lineman at 6-5, 338 pounds, backward on a pass rush. Despite having such a massive frame, Whitticker also has displayed nimble feet and the ability to recover if a defender beats him to a spot.
"I've shown I can stop the bull rush pretty good," he said. "I can get myself in some bad positions and know I can always hopefully come back."
The seventh-round draft pick has grown accustomed to the different rhythm of NFL life. At Michigan State, his schedule included classes in the morning and practice in the afternoon. NCAA rules limited the team to no more than 20 hours of football work a week. Between conditioning sessions, meetings and film study, he works around the clock with the Packers.
"I can get almost 20 hours in two days of work here," he said.
That preparation has helped him with the learning process. He quickly can pick up blitzes, recognize defensive stunts and decipher how defenders tip off their actions.
His mental growth extends beyond the X's and O's. He has learned how to weather success and failure. Earlier in the season, if a defender, like Seymour, beat him, he would lose some of his poise. He would talk about the play afterward on the sidelines. A couple of series later, he would still agonize over it.
Now he has a short memory -- a key for any offensive lineman.
"When he messes up, he's down," said Wells, who started two games as a rookie last year. "But he lets it go. He moves on to the next play."
Despite Whitticker's improvement, Head Coach Mike Sherman knows it's a long season and that he faces stalwarts of the Atlanta Falcons in linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Rod Coleman and defensive end Patrick Kerney this weekend. He hedges before lavishing praise upon the rookie.
"Halfway through an NFL season, I don't want to anoint anybody with anything yet," Sherman said. "We still have a lot of football to play."
During the Packers' remaining games, Whitticker knows he must improve in several areas. As a starting offensive lineman, he assumes some of the responsibility for a running game that has underachieved. The Packers rank 30th in the league in rushing and last in yards per carry.
If he can stay low out of his stance, though, Whitticker could become a very strong run blocker.
"Someone who's predominantly good at pass blocking should be able to make that adjustment," Wells said.
To completely round out his game, he also must work on sustaining his blocks and driving defenders out of the hole.
With eight games under his belt, however, Whitticker resembles a different player than the one overmatched by Seymour during the preseason.
"I started out a young, raw rookie. Now I'm starting to mature," Whitticker said. "I've improved a lot. Now I just need to take my complete game out there and start demolishing people."