Tramon Williams smiled. The conversation has become such annual ritual – almost as much a part of the Family Night Scrimmage as the fireworks and the shirt-off-our-back jersey giveaway – that the Green Bay Packers veteran cornerback was ready to commence reminiscing.
In 2007, it had been Williams, an unknown at the time, who’d capped an impressive first week of training camp with a dynamite Family Night, intercepting an Aaron Rodgers pass in the end zone during the 2-minute drill and recording three tackles, including the hit of the night on wide receiver Chris Francies. By season’s end, Williams, who’d toiled in anonymity on the practice squad in 2006, was the Packers’ No. 3 cornerback, was playing in the NFC Championship Game and had launched a career that would see him evolve into one of the league’s top cover men.
And while no one can predict such great heights for James Nixon or Brandon Smith – both of whom are roster longshots just like Williams was six years ago – as Williams stood on the sideline Saturday night, out with a knee injury, he hoped that one or both had just taken their first step on a similar path.
“You know what? Those guys, they’re aware of the importance of this night. Obviously, I always tell them my story,” Williams said. “That’s how you get the spotlight on you – come out and make a play, a first impression. Those guys did that. I’m glad to see that that still lives on.”
It most certainly did on Saturday night, when Nixon jumped a Jeremy Ross out route and picked off No. 3 quarterback B.J. Coleman’s pass, returning it 66 yards for a touchdown. And it happened again when Smith, a converted wide receiver who was out of football for two years before getting a tryout offer from the Packers, played Ross perfectly and picked off another Coleman pass in the end zone, extinguishing a scoring threat.
“That's exactly what it's about,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “That's the thing about playing corner in this league. You're not going to be covered up very long or too often. It's a one-on-one battle out there in space, so that's a great job by both those guys.”
Of course, a big play during Family Night isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to the 53-man roster. Two years ago, undrafted free agent Brandian Ross intercepted a Rodgers pass and returned it for a touchdown, but he never made it past the practice squad. (Ross is now with Oakland.) And realistically, the odds are stacked high against Nixon and Smith making the roster this year.
Including Williams, who is out with a bone bruise in his knee and is expected to return in a week or two, Nixon and Smith have six cornerbacks ahead of them on the depth chart: Williams, Sam Shields, Davon House, Casey Hayward, rookie fifth-round pick Micah Hyde and special-teams ace Jarrett Bush, who’s officially listed as a cornerback. The five veterans played a combined 73 regular-season games for the Packers last year.
But given what Nixon and Smith have overcome to get to this point, it’d be wise not to bet against them. Both are making the difficult conversion from playing wide receiver for much of their college careers, and Smith has been especially resilient and dogged in pursuit of his NFL dream.
Nixon was signed to the Packers’ practice squad last September and spent 16 weeks (including playoffs) there. After spending his first three college seasons at Temple as a wide receiver, running back and kickoff returner while dabbling as a nickel cornerback, the 6-foot, 186-pound Nixon transferred to Division II California University of Pennsylvania for his final season and moved to cornerback full-time because the Vulcans had “a receiver that was up for the D-II Heisman,” Nixon said. (That receiver, Thomas Mayo, was released by the New York Jets last month.)
While Nixon struggled initially to learn the Packers’ defensive terminology, extra sessions with cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt vastly improved his understanding of defense.
“It was very gruesome. Me and coach Joe Whitt, we struggled a bit in the beginning because I just couldn’t catch on because I still had an offensive mindset,” Nixon explained. “It took a while, but he started to get to me and helped me through it and it’s working out pretty good.
“I’m not there yet. I’m still learning everything, from formations to guessing what type of routes to expect and stuff like that. It’s still a long shot for me.”
As for his touchdown, Nixon said with a smile, “I know it doesn’t really count in the record books but it does for me, my first NFL touchdown. I’m still humbled by it and it’s a great milestone.”
Smith’s story is even more compelling. He spent four seasons as a wide receiver at Arizona State from 2007 through 2010, playing in just 19 games with three starts and catching only10 passes for 196 yards (19.6 avg.) and two touchdowns. He spent time as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks following the 2011 NFL Draft but failed to make either roster. He had been out of football until the Packers invited him to the post-draft rookie orientation camp on a tryout basis after he’d stood out at NFL regional and super-regional combines over the winter.
At age 26, Smith knew that the Packers’ invitation might be his last NFL shot, so he came to Green Bay despite learning shortly before his departure that his mother had died suddenly. When he arrived at Lambeau Field, didn’t say a word about it to anyone, pouring himself into making the most of the Packers’ opportunity. The team signed him right after the camp ended.
“He did something that I don’t know if I could do,” Whitt said. “That was Mother’s Day weekend, so that’s doubly hard. The kid came here and he worked as a tryout guy – not a guy that’s already signed – so that shows you the character that he has.”
The Packers believe Smith has the tools to be an effective cornerback. He has phenomenal size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) for a cornerback and tested through the roof coming out of college (he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and posted a 40-inch vertical leap at his 2011 pro day). The idea of playing him cornerback came from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who recruited Smith to USC as a defensive back and suggested he make the move after the Seahawks cut him in 2011.
“He doesn’t know anything about defense right now, and once he figures it out, he’s got a chance to be pretty good,” Whitt said. “There’s no question that he has size and he’s fast and strong.”
Smith credits Whitt for preparing him to make the play that caught everyone’s attention Saturday night. Playing inside leverage, he was in perfect position when Coleman tried to get Ross on a jump-ball in the end zone. He also credited Whitt for keeping him calm before the crowd of 63,047.
“I haven’t played in front of fans like this in a long time. I’ve been out of ball for two seasons, so (along with) making the transfer over to corner, once I got out there, I just felt the energy of the whole stadium. I couldn’t even calm myself down from the warm-up,” Smith said. “Once we actually got playing, I was so hyped and so full of energy. I just had a great time out there, just flying around and doing everything I can, and remembering what (Whitt) told me; ‘Go out there, relax. You can play football. I know this is a new position for you but just go out and play football. That’s all you can do.’”
Of course, there was one other person who delivered some useful advice to Smith: Williams, who gives Smith more than just coverage pointers on the sideline.
“Tramon, he’s a hell of a corner. When I come to the sideline, he’s always mentoring me about everything I did, everything he sees good or bad,” Smith said. “Hearing his whole story, it’s inspiring to me. Me being 26 years old and making a switch from receiver to corner and getting in the ball game a little later, I’m always trying to get knowledge from him on how he handled things. Tramon is always open to talk. Especially me with being a new corner, he’s always harping on me about staying focused.
“I know I have the potential of being a great corner with my size, speed and ability that I have. I know I can do this. … I’m very excited and I thank God for being able to make a play and an opportunity to make that play.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.