GREEN BAY – T.J. Lang isn’t conceding anything. That much was clear Monday from the Green Bay Packers third-year guard, who may be battling the team’s first-round pick for a starting spot but isn’t intimidated in the least.
It’s almost as if Lang is working under the assumption that coach Mike McCarthy’s post-practice statement from last Wednesday – “We’re just trying to maximize those reps for those young guys,” the coach said – is the real explanation for why he isn’t at least rotating at left guard with rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod on the No. 1 offensive line.
"It's still early in camp. Obviously the four preseason games are going to be huge, a huge evaluation for both of us,” Lang said Monday, as the players returned to work following Saturday night’s abbreviated Family Night Scrimmage to prepare for next Saturday night’s preseason opener at Cleveland. “I'm still taking it day by day. Derek, he's been with the ones since the first day. I can't get myself down, I've just got to take advantage of the opportunities that I do get. That being said, I think whenever I have had the chance to get in there at left guard, I think I've done some good things.
“Derek, he's a young player, so they want to give him as many reps (as possible) so he's feeling better mentally with the offense. It's a short camp this year with the missed OTAs and all that, so you've really got to make every rep and every practice count. You can't have a bad practice; it'll hurt you too much. I think I've done a pretty good job of doing the right thing when I've been in there."
So far in camp, Sherrod has worked at left guard with the No. 1 line, then at left tackle with the No. 2 group. Lang, meanwhile, has worked at left guard with the 2s almost exclusively.
According to offensive line coach James Campen, the coaching staff has a set number of snaps they want each player to get, and while Sherrod is pulling double-duty at left guard and left tackle, Campen insisted that Sherrod and Lang are getting the same number of snaps at guard.
“We count reps, I have a target rep for (Sherrod), and he's certainly in line with T.J. and the other guys,” Campen said last week. “So no, he's not getting more work than anyone else."
The challenge for Lang is that he could use extra work, too. After undergoing surgery in April 2010 for a broken wrist, he was unable to participate in most of the offseason work and was rusty when camp began, which prevented him from challenging for a starting spot. He held onto his roster spot because the coaches liked the potential he showed as a rookie in 2009 filling in at right and left tackle, but his playing time on offense was limited to a few mop-up appearances at left tackle, along with cameos as a blocking tight end in short-yardage situations on offense and as an extra defensive lineman when injuries thinned that unit.
Lang’s only in-game work at left guard came in the team’s Dec. 12 loss at Detroit, when starter Daryn Colledge went down with a knee injury and replacement Jason Spitz played poorly in his stead. Thus, his snaps in preseason will be vital. It’s unclear whether McCarthy, who doesn’t speak with reporters until after nighttime practices, intends to get Lang reps with the No. 1 offense against the Browns or in subsequent exhibition games.
"I really haven't had much game experience (at left guard), just a half last year in Detroit. But I think I've had enough (regular-season) snaps the last two years, I'm comfortable when I go out there. I don't feel like I'm being thrown into the water like I was for a couple games my rookie year. I feel like when it does come time, I'm poised, ready to take over. I feel comfortable and confident I can get the job done."
Lang said he would have no reservations about going in at left or right tackle if injury befell Chad Clifton or Bryan Bulaga, but “my goal is to start, and the best shot is going to be at left guard, and that's pretty much where all of my focus has been in the first week of camp. That's where I'm really trying to hone my skills."
For Lang, just being healthy is enough to breed confidence. He admitted that he never felt quite right last season, and while OTAs and minicamp certainly would have been beneficial to him had the lockout been averted, his workouts with Michigan-native teammates Frank Zombo and Nick McDonald helped. So did spending another year in the offense, even though his playing time was limited last season.
“The biggest thing I've noticed so far this year to last year, outside of being healthy, was just my mental grasp of the offense,” Lang said. “The first day, kind of getting back into it, there was confusion and questions. But the more each day went on, I looked at it, just started realizing that I know this stuff, it's just a matter of getting out there and doing the repetitions and working back into it that way.“
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t playing favorites in the competition. Disappointed that Colledge and his 83 career NFL starts were allowed to sign with Arizona as a free agent, Rodgers just wants Colledge’s replacement to be up to speed.
“We’ll have to find somebody, either Derek or TJ, and to make sure we sure we have a guy who is mentally sharp,” Rodgers said. “Our offense is so diverse in what we’re trying to do. And we can do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage.”
Lang believes that somebody is him.
“I'm looking forward to just getting to the opportunity to play in these games, and if I play the way I've been practicing, I think I'll be in pretty good shape,” Lang said. “For me, I don't look at, ‘I'm on the second team.’ I don't let that get me down. I'm going to go wherever it is, second, third team, first team, it doesn't matter to me. I'm going to go out, try and block the guy across from me. It doesn't matter who I'm playing next to. I'm going to go out there and try to take advantage of every chance I get."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.