Dover High grad Kuhn welcomes challenge from Packers rookie
GREEN BAY— This could be John Kuhn's ninth season with the Green Bay Packers.
Many of the nation's best collegiate fullbacks these days are lucky to get one.
Not only has no player in Packers history heard louder cheers for a 3-yard gain than Dover High School graduate Kuhn, but his employer still values his position. So much, in fact, that the team drafted another fullback in the sixth round of this year's NFL draft.
Kuhn's reaction to Green Bay taking Oklahoma's Aaron Ripkowski?
"Excitement," he says with, well, excitement.
"We preach around here that competition breeds the best football players," Kuhn said. "If you can't embrace that, if you don't believe it, then what's the point of saying it?"
Maybe the most interesting subplot on a well-stocked offense in training camp this summer will be if Kuhn — 33 years old in September — can prove to coaches that he's still valuable with a 22-year-old draft pick in town. Kuhn was re-signed this offseason at the veteran's minimum with no guaranteed money. The 246-pound Ripkowski, while lacking Kuhn's thousands of snaps of experience, could be a more ideal battering ram for Eddie Lacy.
Taking nothing for granted: Kuhn isn't taking anything for granted. He's looking at this as a very real competition.
"You have to. This is the NFL," Kuhn said. "Things happen all the time and if you don't embrace it — if you don't truly look at it as an opportunity to make yourself better — you're only selling yourself short."
His playing time dipped in 2014. Kuhn's 244 snaps were his lowest since 2009.
Yet there's a reason quarterback Aaron Rodgers was so quick to praise his friend in a Q&A recently. Kuhn's lead blocking helped close out a 24-21 win at Minnesota. With Kuhn teeing off on linebackers Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr, the Packers melted away the final 3 minutes 23 seconds. He added muscle last year and used it. As running backs coach Sam Gash noted, Kuhn played with more "acceleration" through the hole.
Coach Mike McCarthy has tried to use as many different personnel groupings as possible.
Fullback still important for some teams: So even with a deep, talented pool of receivers, the offense will continue to use a fullback to some extent.
"I think people will start perking their ears up a bit and start seeing that the fullback position is still around," Kuhn said. "You look around, a couple guys got drafted this year. A lot of teams brought some more in. So it's going to get back to the run game here pretty soon."
True, there were four fullbacks drafted in May — one (Alabama's Jalston Fowler) going as high as the fourth round.
"I think it's very important (in Green Bay)," Kuhn said. "To come out there and be able to pound the football but still be versatile enough to go out into the flat and keep secondaries honest and linebackers honest, pass protection, to protect Aaron because sometimes you need a seven-man protection for those big defensive lines and aggressive fronts.
"I think it's very prevalent in this offense still."
Forced to wait: Yet as the Packers re-signed the likes of Randall Cobb and Scott Tolzien (March 9), Bryan Bulaga (March 11), Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji (March 31), Kuhn waited. The team didn't sign the fullback until April 13. Asked if he was worried about his future here as free agency lingered for a month, Kuhn said he stayed proactive and examined all possibilities.
There weren't any early guarantees made by Green Bay. Rather, a waiting game ensued.
"If you only expect the best, you're fooling yourself so you always have to anticipate every possibility," Kuhn said. "Free agency has all kinds of different routes that it can take. Some guys come in and it's a hard negotiation for a long, long time. Some guys come in and sign right away."
A few weeks later, the team drafted Ripkowski.
Acting as a mentor: Surely, the Packers will want to see if Ripkowski can handle the ball this summer. He was used exclusively as a blocker for the Sooners, touching the ball only 14 times. Kuhn has 189 attempts for 591 yards (3.1 avg.) with 76 receptions for 516 yards and 21 total touchdowns. So far, Ripkowski said Kuhn has been a mentor, a coach, more than willing to share his knowledge of the offense.
Even if there's a new kid in town threatening to take his job.
"I wouldn't put it that way," Ripkowski said. "He's more than willing, he's a professional, he's willing to help the team out. He's not just here for himself."
The Packers could always keep two fullbacks on the roster, of course, and treat this as a gradual apprenticeship.
Ripkowski has been a fan of Kuhn since high school, calling him one of his favorite players growing up.
"He's really quick about all his reads, all his checks and everything," Ripkowski said. "That's pretty impressive to see day in and day out.... It's pretty nice, a pretty huge step to come up here and play with the guy and learn from the guy."
Battle will come in August: So far, Ripkowski says he has been able to pick up the offense. He expected it to be a challenge. For now, without pads on, it's about making the right reads.
And by August, coaches will get to see both in pads. Ripkowski is eager to display his physicality.
"That's why I play ball," he said. "The fullback position, that's what we take pride in — that physicality."
Whether he's physical enough to leapfrog Kuhn remains to be seen.
Kuhn has been the starting fullback since Brett Favre was the team's quarterback. After losing vets, the Packers might want to keep one of them around.
"Lead by example," Kuhn said. "Come in, be on time, take notes, smile to people, be respectful, show them the Packer way of life."