GREEN BAY – Next on Aaron Ripkowski’s agenda might be a Lambeau Leap, maybe as soon as this Sunday.
But here’s the thing. Ripkowski, the Packers fullback who has steadily gotten more and more involved in the offense in his second NFL season, really has no idea when that opportunity might present itself.
That’s been the story of his brief pro career. A sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2015, Ripkowski was a lead-blocking specialist in college who touched the ball barely more than a dozen times in four years and didn’t play special teams.
Fast forward to this past Monday night in Philadelphia, and goal-line rusher was added to his ever-expanding list of job responsibilities. He scored his first NFL touchdown and became the first Packers player other than QB Aaron Rodgers to run for a TD this season.
The journey to this point has been impossible to predict, but Ripkowski has just kept rolling with it, all the way through his emphatic, fourth-quarter spike in the Lincoln Financial Field end zone.
“The veterans around here have really done a good job of letting you know that’s the way it’s done,” Ripkowski said of being ready for anything. “Even if you’re not playing one game, you might play a lot the next game, so you have to prepare each game and every play like you’re going to be out there playing.”
It started for Ripkowski with making a mark on special teams as a rookie. A defensive end and linebacker in high school, he applied those tackling skills to the Packers’ coverage units and finished tied for fourth on the team with nine stops last year.
It caught the eye of the Green Bay coaching staff that maybe they had a better athlete on their hands than just a Big 12 Conference blocking specialist.
“Where ‘Rip’ surprised me was special teams,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He jumped off the bus as a rookie last year and made some excellent open-field tackles on kickoff cover. I didn’t know he had that in him.”
He also spent his rookie season learning as much as he could about the offense and the fullback position from veteran John Kuhn, and in 2016 the job was turned over to him.
Little did he know, though, that his duties would involve more rushing attempts and pass receptions than he’s ever had in his life, partly out of necessity due to the injuries at running back, but also by earning more chances through being so productive.
This season, Ripkowski has 19 rushes for 73 yards, plus six receptions for 27 yards. They aren’t eye-popping stats, but he’s made tacklers miss, churned his legs in traffic, and gotten every last yard out of every opportunity.
When the numbers are contrasted with a grand total of six rushes and eight receptions in a four-year college career, plus one catch for 18 yards as a rookie last season, it’s as though he’s playing a whole new game.
“You don’t really know what you can do until you test yourself,” Ripkowski said. “That’s when you really figure out. You get out there, figure out what you can do and what your limits are.”
Most impressive to his teammates is that no matter what role Ripkowski is asked to play, he’s prepared for it.
“His approach has been very steady, and that’s the thing you like to see consistently,” Rodgers said. “He’s just very dialed in to the plan. That’s what John did so well.
“‘Rip’ was in his hip pocket when he was here, and John to his credit was a fantastic teammate, helping the young guys out, especially ‘Rip,’ figure out what he’s supposed to be doing, and kind of grooming him for this opportunity.
“Now ‘Rip’s’ got it, he’s taken ahold of that and he’s done a really good job for us. I’m really proud of him, and like I said the other night, he deserves to be on the field probably more than he already is.”
Both Ripkowski’s knowledge of the offense and athleticism have reached new levels in 2016 through studying and physical training.
His cult-hero status also has been elevated now that he’s found the end zone, but his even-keeled demeanor and low-key personality continue to serve him well in that respect.
He knew coming in that following in Kuhn’s footsteps would be a challenge all its own, and like everything else, he’s just rolled with it.
“I don’t add any extra pressure on myself, but of course, he’s a legend,” Ripkowski said. “You can’t let the guys down.”