GREEN BAY – Ricky Jean Francois pulled into the St. Norbert College dorms around 10 p.m. last Tuesday, on the eve of his first training camp as a member of the Packers.
The veteran defensive lineman, filled with anticipation and excitement for another NFL season, wasn’t sure with whom he’d be rooming when he first opened the door.
A quick scan of his dorm didn’t offer any further clues. The room was dark and quiet. It wasn’t until Jean Francois flicked on the lights he saw fellow defensive tackle Mike Daniels lying down on his bed with headphones on.
Eyes shut and sound asleep.
“I’m like, damn, it’s only 10 o’clock,” Jean Francois said. “It’s like, I guess I better start going to bed early now since he’s going to bed early.”
This is the tone that’s been set in the defensive line room for years now. It’s a business mentality built on work ethic, brotherhood, and perhaps most importantly, attitude.
It starts with Daniels, the bellowing voice of the front and the face of the Packers’ interior pass rush. A two-time Pro Bowl alternate, the 6-foot, 312-pound defensive tackle carries a chip the size of his home state of New Jersey on each shoulder pad.
Jean Francois heard stories about Daniels long before signing with Green Bay in March. He’s boisterous, assertive and an absolute pain for interior offensive linemen to deal with.
What Jean Francois didn’t realize until joining the team for the start of the Packers’ offseason program is how Daniels has helped galvanize a young defensive line that boasts 2016 draft picks Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.
By far, this is the youngest defensive line Jean Francois has ever been around. Only he, Daniels and Letroy Guion are older than 25.
Yet, that’s what makes the 30-year-old defensive tackle more excited than ever for this upcoming season, his ninth in the NFL.
“Since OTAs until now, I’m seeing them all grow up and get better at what they’re good at,” Jean Francois said. “I give them my input here and there, but I’m seeing this line grow. Age don’t mean nothing. Years don’t mean nothing. As long as you have experience or somebody who has experience who can teach you a lot about the game, your process will go a little bit faster.”
Daniels and Jean Francois have tried to provide that guiding light in their own way for a defensive line that helped Green Bay finish eighth vs. the run a year ago.
Still, Daniels is hungry for more. He wants the Packers’ defense to be feared. It starts in the trenches, where a good-hearted – yet spirited – rivalry has started between the offensive and defensive lines, championship belt and all.
It continued Monday when a competitive rep between right tackle Bryan Bulaga and Lowry ignited things between the two sides. After a brief stoppage, the offensive and defensive lines quickly got back to work.
Lowry, a fourth-round pick a year ago, has been making noise throughout the first week of camp. After notching two sacks as a rookie, the 6-foot-6, 296-pound defensive end has displayed more strength and power since the pads went on, especially when he comes to ripping and shedding blockers.
His role could grow considerably this season with spots available in the Packers’ interior rush packages following the departure of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones.
“I think that’s come along with just having more power in my base,” Lowry said. “I feel a lot stronger in my lower body. I think as you can get off the ball and have a more explosive get-off, it makes it easier to shed blocks.”
Clark, the team’s first-round pick a year ago, also appears to have taken a jump. Only 21 years old, the 6-foot-3, 314-pound defensive tackle talked at length this offseason about his dedication to developing strength for Year 2.
Since the start of camp, he’s been routinely lining up against the likes of starting center Corey Linsley and left guard Lane Taylor in the team’s one-on-one periods, with each snap providing a wealth of information.
The Packers suffered one setback on the line Monday when Head Coach Mike McCarthy announced rookie third-round pick Montravius Adams will miss “multiple weeks” with a foot injury, but his absence likely will give more looks to the likes of Christian Ringo and Brian Price in their quest for roster spots.
Daniels has been stressing the importance of a defense’s attitude for years and he likes what he’s seen thus far, particularly on the line.
“We’ve gotten better with, each and every year bringing guys in that exhibit that attitude,” Daniels said. “(Ha Ha) Clinton-Dix, Guion, Ricky Jean, Julius while he was here, and now we drafted Josh (Jones). So it’s good to have guys coming in with that hit-you-in-the-mouth mentality. We just have to keep building on it.”
Rooming with Daniels has been an eye-opening experience for Jean Francois, who smiles when saying he feels Daniels’ intensity from the moment he wakes up. Quiet and focused, Daniels barely will say a word until he hits the practice field.
Even a proven veteran like Jean Francois believes he can take something from Daniels’ vocal style. He also makes sure to pass the message on to the younger defensive linemen.
“Take advantage of that because you’re not going to find many people as passionate as that,” Jean Francois said. “Every day I come to practice, if I don’t hear his mouth, something is wrong. You need to wake up. I need to hear your voice. When you hear somebody’s passion like that on the field, you need to match his intensity.”
T Bulaga has the respect that matters most