GREEN BAY – The slight smile he cracked signified as much relief as joy.
Shortly after Saturday’s practice, Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins was asked to reflect on the impressive diving interception he made in the back of the end zone in 11-on-11 red-zone work.
“Oh, man, I can’t remember the last time I made a play and felt good about it,” Rollins said, grinning just a tad as he put on a clean shirt. “Finally.”
It was the play of the day in the first workout of training camp in pads, and it wasn’t just any play. It came against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb, taking away a potential touchdown.
Lined up in the slot, Rollins said he was maintaining outside leverage and didn’t overcommit when Cobb gave him a fake to the inside.
“I don’t know if Randall knew the ball was coming,” Rollins said. “I was in good enough position to see through him to A-Rod, and I was just able to react to the ball.”
With seemingly a millisecond to get his hands on the Rodgers laser, Rollins peeled off Cobb and dove, arms outstretched, at the perfect time. He pulled the ball in just inside the back line of the end zone.
“That was an awesome play,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “I want to go back and look at it on film. It showed his hands and his athletic ability. That was real good for him.”
Indeed it was, and Rollins’ reaction of “finally” was understandable, given his disappointing second NFL season in 2016.
After a solid rookie season – which included a pick-six – as a second-round draft pick with just one year of major college football to his credit, Rollins didn’t make the progress he was hoping for last season.
A groin injury cost him three games, had him playing less than full strength in several others, and eventually required offseason surgery. In addition, a scary sideline collision in Week 17 at Detroit dealt him an injured neck and concussion, forcing him to sit out the first two playoff games.
Nothing about 2016 went as planned, and it’s plays like Saturday’s that will help him turn the page.
“I just want to get back to playing how I know I can play, and up to the potential I know I can play,” he said. “I had a strong rookie campaign as far as coming in and contributing what I could on special teams and to the defense when they needed me at times.
“Last year, I was given a bigger role, and I didn’t fulfill, to my standards, my responsibilities and what I was supposed to do. This year, I have to get back to fulfilling whatever role I’m given, and even going above that, because I know what type of player I am.”
It’s worth noting Rollins spent Friday’s and Saturday’s practices in the slot or “star” position with the No. 1 defense, a post held all spring by friend and fellow 2015 draft pick Damarious Randall.
Rollins doesn’t put much stock in running with the ones this early in camp, because rotations are commonplace and assignments can change daily. But like any competitor, he’ll try to make it difficult to be replaced.
Most important to him is that playing with the first unit on defense means going up against the first unit on offense, namely Rodgers.
“That’s the goal, to get as much reps with 12 back there as possible, because then you know you’re doing something right,” he said.
Rollins also has more confidence that no matter where he lines up, he’s doing the right thing. His understanding of the defense and all its details reached another level this past offseason, and he can feel the difference just a few days into camp.
“I know the defense truly now, as opposed to just still trying to learn last year,” he said. “I know what’s going on. I know when a guy moves exactly what we’re getting to.
“It’s just the little things within the defense that make you play faster and give you confidence, because you know what you’re doing, and you know what the guy next to you is doing.”
Those next to him feel the same way about his game.
“You can see the savviness in him,” Burnett said. “He understands what he’s doing. He understands his technique. He trusts his ability, trusts what he sees.
“He doesn’t overthink things now. The most important thing is not overthink it, just play ball. You’re here for a reason, so rely on those abilities that brought you here.”
The best of his abilities was on display with Saturday’s pick, which capped a full morning of tough coverage in the slot.
Rollins hit the first break of camp on a high note, but he’s not taking it any farther than that. The idea now is to make sure it’s not the highlight, but one of many.
“The play happened, it’s over with,” he said. “We’ll see it on film today, but we’re off (Sunday), and next week it doesn’t matter.
“You have to flush it, and just try to make another one.”