GREEN BAY — LaDarius Gunter wanted to be on the field. It didn’t matter whether it came on defense or special teams. The second-year cornerback intended to play this season.
All that mattered to Gunter was getting a chance to be on the Packers’ game-day roster each week, especially after being inactive in nine of the team’s 18 games as a rookie in 2015.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” said Gunter back in June. “I’m trying to increase my role, so I can add more value to the defense.”
As fate would have it, Gunter ended up doing a lot more than just suit up.
It took one game for the undrafted free agent to get thrust into a starting role after Sam Shields sustained a concussion in the Packers’ opener against Jacksonville on Sept. 11 that eventually landed the Pro Bowl cornerback on season-ending injured reserve.
Gunter has since started the last 14 games in Shields’ spot, playing more defensive snaps (794) than any other cornerback on the roster. Along with 51 tackles, he leads the secondary with 13 passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
It’s been a busier season than Gunter anticipated after playing all of eight defensive snaps during the 2015 regular season. Still, he hasn’t shied away from facing some of the NFL’s top receivers.
He’s had to go toe-to-toe with Pro Bowlers such as New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., Atlanta’s Julio Jones, and Dallas’ Dez Bryant.
“Over the season, he’s probably been our highest graded corner. That says a ton,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think about where he started and the opportunity he’s been given. He’s done a great job.”
The loss of Shields dealt a heavy blow to the secondary. Not only was Shields a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback, but he also had more NFL experience (six seasons) than the rest of the room combined.
To help make up for that, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt reinserted Micah Hyde back into the cornerback room more this season. The fourth-year defensive back started in Whitt’s room during his rookie year in 2013 before learning the safety position.
On the field, the Packers’ three second-year players – Gunter, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins – have had to lean on each other. After stepping in for Shields, Gunter has made sure to communicate with his other cornerbacks and ask questions of Whitt when he isn’t sure of something.
Gunter received his biggest boost of confidence from Whitt, who pulled him aside earlier this season and reminded him of the confidence the defensive coaches have in his ability.
“Joe told me from the jump, ‘I trust you. Just go out and play your game,’” Gunter recalled. “It felt good. It’s a relief to know that they trust you and they’re not so uptight that they’re scared you’re going to mess up or miss a play here or there. We’re all human. That trust is a good feeling.”
Like most young players, Gunter has had a few games he’d like to have back this season, but his teammates and coaches will tell you the important thing is how he’s responded to the adversity.
A short memory is crucial for any cornerback, but the groin injuries Randall and Rollins suffered midseason made Gunter’s presence and even-keeled demeanor essential for the defense.
Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Gunter have been the only players in the secondary who haven’t missed a game this season. There were several times when the next man up has been undrafted rookies, Kentrell Brice, Josh Hawkins and Makinton Dorleant.
Gunter is still looking to snag his first regular-season interception – he does have two in eight preseason games – but he’s otherwise done everything the Packers could’ve asked this year.
“Gunt’s one of those guys who’s going to be in the league for a long time because he has long arms, can get his hands on people and he’s strong,” Hyde said. “He doesn’t talk very much. He just goes out there and plays. That’s why a lot of guys in the locker room like to play with him.
“He goes out there, he competes. He’s been on a lot of good receivers this year. I can’t say enough about them.”
Gunter exited Saturday’s 38-25 win over Minnesota with an elbow injury, but he was a full participant when the team returned to practice on Wednesday. McCarthy said he fully anticipates him playing in Sunday’s NFC North title game against Detroit.
One thing McCarthy believes should help the Packers’ secondary is the cornerbacks are finally getting more opportunities to practice in the positions they play on game days.
The domino effect of the injuries has forced the cornerbacks to play all over this season. Often times, the spots where they were lining up in practice shifted once Sunday arrived. The Packers’ hope is more consistency will help the secondary settle down going forward.
Individually, experience has been Gunter’s best friend this year. If the Packers make a playoff run, Gunter is optimistic all of the opportunities he’s received will translate to big plays down the stretch.
“You don’t take any of those chances for granted,” Gunter said. “Going into this season, it was my goal to contribute any way I could, especially special teams. This year, I’m getting a lot of experience and confidence. I’m going to try to improve each and every week.”