Vonnie Holliday has found a place and a position where he can do great things. For the first time in his NFL career things are not new to Holliday. He is playing for a familiar coaching staff, he knows how to handle the perpetual pressure of being a first-round draft choice, he is comfortable with filling the void left by Reggie White at his new position of left defensive end and he has embraced his role as a leader on the defensive line.
Jethro Franklin is the third defensive line coach Holliday has worked with since coming to Green Bay in 1998. Franklin, however, is the first to return for a second season. He was preceded by Larry Brooks (1994-98) and Mike Trgovac (1999), both of whom left the Packers due to head coaching changes.
"I really enjoy playing for coach Franklin because he knows the game," Holliday explained. "He's played the position and now he's coaching it so he relates well.
"Not having to learn a new play book, a new scheme, new steps, a different style of coaching is big. Now you can concentrate on the small parts of the game that are very important. And I can only think that that is advantageous to me, as a young player."
Holliday considers himself a young player, but has had three years to get acquainted with the once new surroundings since being drafted by Green Bay in the first-round in 1998. The Packers traded their first and second picks to Miami in order to move up 10 places and select the All-ACC defensive tackle from North Carolina in the 19th slot overall. The Packers were coming off consecutive Super Bowls, and Holliday was excited to play in Titletown.
"It is not your typical NFL city," Holliday explained. "It is unique and there is a certain mystic about Lambeau and Green Bay. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it."
And the Packers felt very fortunate to draft Holliday. Predicted to go much higher, but dropped due to injuries that limited his pre-draft workouts, the Packer organization got a steal when Holliday was still available at No. 19. Though disappointed not to have been chosen sooner (many expected the Panthers to take him at 14), Holliday was able to show Carolina what it passed up. Early in his rookie season, South Carolina native posted two sacks in a 37-30 win at Ericsson Stadium, in front of more than 50 friends and family members.
Holliday did more than have a great game at Carolina; he had a remarkable rookie season. A starter from Day 1 at a new position -- right defensive end -- he garnered 39 tackles (27 solo) including 8 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and 5 passes defensed. He accomplished this despite suffering a high ankle sprain, which forced him out of four contests. Many think the injury also cost him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors; he finished runner up, two votes behind Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson.
Holliday harnessed the pressure of being a first-round pick and turned it into the drive that earned him a very successful NFL debut. He pushed himself toward the tremendous goal of being one of the greatest Packers to play the game.
Speaking of greatness, Holliday was able to learn from one of the league's finest. Football legend Reggie White finished his Green Bay career the year Holliday began his, 1998. The rookie looked to White as a mentor and father figure.
"Anytime he's on the field, teams have to make exceptions," Holliday said. "They know Reggie White's on the other side so that only helps me out playing opposite of him. And I think that first year he even fed off me a little bit. We fed off each other so well. I only wish I could have come into the league a little earlier so we had more time to play together. He's one of those guys that you are just very proud and privileged that he graced you with his presence."
A year after White left Green Bay, Holliday had the awesome responsibility of assuming White's role, when he transitioned from right end to left "power" end. Lining up at new position was a switch that was not easy to make. Holliday compared changing sides of the defensive line to changing the hand with which one writes. He believed collegiate training at Chapel Hill prepared him to make the move.
"We played up and down the line," Holliday said of his days at UNC. "We didn't have set positions. I didn't play right or left in college. I played sometimes ends, mostly tackles. It just depended on our defense. I think Carolina and our defensive scheme got me ready for the professionals."
Though Holliday has played several positions throughout his collegiate and professional career, he feels most suited for his current position -- left defensive end.
"This power end position is a position that I really like," Holliday said. "I am the power end. I'm not a fast guy and I'm not the biggest or strongest guy, but I'm a nice mixture of the three."
White was also a nice mixture of the three, and analysts have often compared to Holliday to the man he replaced.
"You talk about a legend, Reggie White, and for your name to be put in the same category or in the same sentence with a guy like that, it means a lot to me," Holliday said. "I'm nowhere close to Reggie White's status or what he's done in this league. But I'm a young guy and I hope to one day be as good as or better than Reggie White, which is really hard to say because this guy is one of the best. But that's one of my goals, so I have my work cut out for me."
A fourth-year veteran, Holliday has naturally become a leader in the defense. He welcomes the responsibility and leads by example rather than voice. Holliday hopes that his success on the field can lead to the success of the players around him.
Only time will tell what Vonnie Holliday is capable of, but he is hoping for big things this coming season.
"I feel like I've been playing pretty consistently over the last couple years," Holliday said. "Given the change in the coaching staff, the scheme and what's expected of me, I have a better grasp of where I fit in the defense and on this team. I'm really looking forward to going out and having a great year."