GREEN BAY — All Joe Thomas has ever wanted to do is play football.
Hailed by his coaches at South Carolina State as “a tackling machine,” Thomas came to the Packers in 2014 as an undrafted linebacker with two objectives: make the team and find a role.
After spending his rookie year on Green Bay’s practice squad, Thomas accomplished both of those goals last season albeit under unusual circumstances.
Thomas didn’t actually make the Packers’ roster coming out of camp. Instead, he started the 2015 season on Dallas’ practice squad before returning to Green Bay in Week 3 after Josh Boyd was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
With Sam Barrington out for the year, Thomas immediately stepped in as the dime linebacker in the Packers’ defensive sub-package.
That’s where he played most of his 335 snaps last season, registering 26 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in 14 regular-season games. He also developed into a core special-teams player, tying for fourth on team with nine coverage tackles.
While the former undrafted free agent was thankful for the opportunity, Thomas didn’t want the takeaway from his first NFL season to be that he only could play in passing situations on third down.
“I was mainly featured on third down as a pass-down linebacker. I don’t see myself as that,” Thomas said. “I see myself as an every-down linebacker. I just wanted to put on a little weight to show them that I can stay up in line with the big guys, as well.”
Thomas sought out to change that misconception this offseason. He trained like he always had back in North Carolina but focused on building more muscle for the 2016 season.
Thomas packed on about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame and returned for camp with his weight hovering in the mid-230s after playing at 225 last season.
His coaches can sense a difference in his game. Thomas has been active in the Packers’ first two preseason games, registering six tackles (two for a loss) in 53 defensive snaps.
“Joe has really come on,” associate head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “He’s been in that situation where he’s at one point fighting to make the team and then all of a sudden he’s a person who has a significant role for us, and he’s growing as a player individually.
“Now he’s coming back and you can see there’s a lot more confidence and a lot more comfort in his play.”
Thomas missed the offseason program due to injury but was cleared in time for the start of camp. That’s afforded him a lot of reps with Barrington and Jake Ryan each missing time.
Despite finding a niche last season, Thomas knows he must earn his roster spot with Barrington returning and the Packers drafting Stanford’s Blake Martinez in the fourth round.
Former fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, originally an outside linebacker, also has stepped his game up this summer.
“Just brings out the best in all of us,” Thomas said. “The competition is great in the room. I’m just going out there trying to compete.”
As an inside linebacker, Thomas says you have to “be a savage” who isn’t afraid to go after the ball on every down. He hopes the changes he made this offseason will give him a chance to prove that.
First things first, Thomas needs to make the Packers’ roster for the first time coming out of training camp. While he’s bigger in size, Thomas plays with the same tenacity he always has.
“As a linebacker and being a part of the special-teams core, I feel like it’s my job to bring physicality to the game and to show everybody that I’m here to play football,” Thomas said.
“I’m going to go out and do my job the best I can. Hopefully, the coaches see something in me and I instill in them that they can trust me, and I get on the field.”
Backup quarterback Brett Hundley will be “hard-pressed” to play in the Packers’ third preseason game in San Francisco on Friday, according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy. Hundley likely out vs. 49ers:
Hundley reinjured the sprained ankle that sidelined him for more than a week during the second quarter of Thursday night’s 20-12 win over Oakland. He appeared to take a low hit from Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack.
Despite the layoff, Hundley looked right at home before the injury. He completed 5-of-7 passes for 67 yards, including a 31-yard pass to Davante Adams off a back-shoulder fade.
More important, Hundley led the first-team offense down the field on the opening drive for a 14-play, 74-yard series that culminated in an Eddie Lacy 1-yard touchdown run.
Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2015, saw a lot of preseason action a year ago in throwing for 630 yards, seven touchdowns and only one interception for a 129.6 passer rating.
Now, all he’s focused on is getting the ankle heathy again and trying to absorb as much as he can from the sidelines.
“I get a lot of the reps from mental repetition right now,” Hundley said. “Obviously Cleveland we missed, but I got a quarter this game. I just have to make the most of this opportunity – all the opportunities whether it’s in practice, whether it’s in the games, wherever it’s at, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
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