GREEN BAY – After a unique college career that spanned three schools over his final three years, Jace Sternberger's transition into the NFL followed a similar script in 2019.
It began with the Packers' rookie tight end missing three preseason games after a jaw injury and concussion from a Lonnie Johnson hit during a joint practice with the Houston Texans in early August.
Sternberger was cleared for Green Bay's preseason finale against Kansas City, but then sustained an ankle injury on a 2-yard touchdown pass that landed him on injured reserve for the first two months of the regular season.
Technically, the 6-foot-4, 251-pounder's rookie campaign ended without a catch on 60 regular-season snaps – his only receiving statistics came in the postseason – but Sternberger still found ways to flash the potential that made him an attractive third-round pick after one season at Texas A&M.
Considered one of the top pass-catching tight ends in last year's class, Sternberger also proved to be a willing and able blocker to the point Head Coach Matt LaFleur slid him in as an H-back when fullback Danny Vitale was out the final three games with a knee injury.
His ability to adapt and thrive spoke volumes to both LaFleur and General Manager Brian Gutekunst.
"The flexibility he gives us, obviously he's got a lot of speed that can stretch the seam," Gutekunst said during his season-ending news conference last week. "He's a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties. At the end there, you saw Matt put him in the backfield and move him around a little bit. I think that's what you're going to see with Jace. I think he can be one of those guys as he develops where he can play from a lot of different places."
Sternberger was designated to return from IR on Nov. 2 but played sparingly during his first month back. In practice, however, the rookie began to impress the coaching staff with the plays he was routinely making on the scout team.
The reps rose near the end of the season and Sternberger made them count. He played a career-high 28 snaps against Seattle in the divisional playoff and caught two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown in 11 snaps against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game.
His 8-yard TD in the fourth quarter came off a scramble play in which he broke free from acclaimed 49ers linebacker Fred Warner prior to quarterback Aaron Rodgers finding the rookie in the back of the end zone.
Veteran Marcedes Lewis saw a night-and-day difference in Sternberger after his midseason return, with the rookie's play down the stretch reflecting how far he's come.
"Jace, as far as mentally, he took a big step," Lewis said. "Early on, when he got in here, he just didn't really know. He didn't understand. Then, he got injured and his head was out of it for a little bit. But getting back in and taking the bull by the horns, he really honed his craft and figured out what his role is and what it's going to be on this team."
Sternberger was a consensus All-American in his lone season at Texas A&M, catching 48 passes for 832 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns in 13 games.
His one season in College Station, partnered with an all-around solid showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, were enough to make Sternberger the 75th player taken in this past year's NFL Draft, the highest the Packers have drafted a tight end since they selected Bubba Franks 14th overall in 2000.
Sternberger didn't shy away from those expectations. Once on the field, the 23-year-old was tenacious in whatever assignments the coaching staff asked him to fulfill.
"Jace does not flinch and he'll throw his face in there," LaFleur said late in the regular season. "I think he's grown on all of us. It took him a minute to get going, but I see improvement every day from him. I love his intent when he goes out there on the field. He is very purposeful in what he wants to accomplish each and every day and it's showing."
Sternberger bounced from Kansas to Northeastern Oklahoma junior college and finally Texas A&M. Despite the changes, Sternberger shaped himself into one of the draft's top prospects at tight end.
Based on how quickly he picked things up during that three-year stretch, Lewis and the Packers' brass are expecting big things as Sternberger gains more experience in Green Bay's offense.
"Just his understanding that if you're being physical, that's going to help you with your releases and getting off the ball and catching the ball," Lewis said. "He's going to be a good one. He's nasty and you need that to be in this league. I'm proud of him and where he's at right now."