On Tuesday night, Graham Harrell may have experienced the most intense work on an NFL football field of his young career.
With Aaron Rodgers and a handful of other selected veterans getting the night off, backups Matt Flynn and Harrell were the only quarterbacks to handle all the snaps.
Flynn, of course, has played his share of preseason games over the past three years, put in two springs of quarterback school, and made one NFL start.
Harrell’s resume, meanwhile, includes just 31 preseason passes last year, but no regular-season games and, because of the lockout, no offseason quarterback school.
Yet, here he was on Ray Nitschke Field, trying to decipher Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ “psycho” blitz package that features all the rushers standing up and shifting around right up until the snap. There were moments the defense dominated, but Harrell made his share of plays, too, and showed how far he’s come since last year.
“You have the keys, take it for a ride. Let’s go,” was Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s message to Harrell and Flynn before the Rodgers-less practice began. “Those are reps you can’t buy. I thought they both performed well and handled everything that was thrown at them tonight.”
Harrell was under plenty of heat Tuesday night, taking a few no-contact sacks against Capers’ exotic blitzes. He rebounded midway through the practice, though, with a few impressive throws in 11-on-11 work – a deep sideline out to tight end Jermichael Finley, a quick-hitter to rookie receiver Randall Cobb, and a slant to undrafted rookie Shaky Smithson.
Later, in a “move-the-ball” team period, Harrell let fly with a deep ball to undrafted rookie Tori Gurley, who made a diving catch for about a 50-yard gain. Then in the two-minute drill to close practice, he hit rookie tight end Ryan Taylor a couple of times and hustled the offense up for a clock-stopping spike with two seconds left. His final pass was caught in the back of the end zone by Chastin West, but West couldn’t get his second foot in bounds.
Harrell displayed the command of a pro quarterback that simply needed time to develop.
“Last year I was trying to learn not only my reads but learn the terminology of the offense, where guys are lining up, what routes they have,” he said. “I still don’t have it down perfect, but I’m getting more comfortable. The play call makes more sense to me now. I know where people are going, what routes they’re running, so it takes a lot of thinking out at the line and lets you play a little more.”
He’s also trying to make up for the lost quarterback school with the extra meeting time and film sessions during this training camp. Quarterbacks Coach Tom Clements also has his pupils do at least one fundamental drill from quarterback school early in practice each night during camp.
On Tuesday, other than the sacks when the protection broke down, the only major negatives on Harrell’s night were two fumbled snaps – one under center, one in the shotgun. One of the sacks was unfortunate, too, because Smithson had beaten a jam at the line of scrimmage and was open deep, but Harrell never got a chance to get the throw off.
Otherwise, the extensive work against some unorthodox defensive looks was invaluable.
“You put him in the shotgun and that’s his comfort level,” said Clements, referring to Harrell’s days as a record-setting passer in Texas Tech’s spread offense. “I think he’s gotten better under center. I think he’s gotten better moving out of the pocket. He’s done that more this camp than he did last year.
“He’s gotten more comfortable with the system, making protection calls, protection adjustments. He probably didn’t make very many if any last year.”
For Harrell, the effort followed a solid practice on Monday night, when he managed to scoop a low shotgun snap and fire it to tight end Spencer Havner for a touchdown during red-zone work. He also had a TD on Monday to undrafted rookie Diondre Borel with a slant pass that split two defenders, and he might have had a third score when he stood tall against the blitz and went to Havner over the middle, but Havner dropped it.
Harrell knows as well as anyone his future is at stake beginning Saturday with the first preseason game in Cleveland. If he can make Green Bay’s final roster this year, he’ll potentially be in line to become Rodgers’ backup should Flynn leave for a shot at a starting job next year.
“He’s got a great opportunity to make himself one of the 53,” Rodgers said. “I think if he plays the way we all know he’s capable of playing, he should be right in the mix.”
Other notes from Tuesday’s practice:
In addition to Rodgers, cornerback Charles Woodson, safety Nick Collins, center Scott Wells, tackle Chad Clifton, defensive ends Ryan Pickett and Howard Green, and receiver Donald Driver were the veterans who got the night off. As far as the depth chart goes, it was worth noting that with Woodson out, the three cornerbacks with the first-team nickel defense were Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush.
Offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse returned to practice after sustaining a shoulder sprain on Monday night. He looked no worse for wear, holding off both linebacker Brad Jones and defensive end Mike Neal in separate reps in the one-on-one pass-blocking drill.
The first fisticuffs of camp surfaced, as Williams and Gurley got into a shoving match after the whistle. The skirmish didn’t last long and it didn’t escalate.
Practice began with the introduction of a group of USO military personnel in attendance who watched practice from the sidelines.