Football Overuses "Rare" – Rashan Gary Is Rare, Though
The expectations and pressure lifted onto the broad shoulders of Rashan Gary’s rookie season with the Packers are met with an unflinching shrug.
Green Bay hasn’t drafted a player as early in ten years. Their generational pass rusher, Clay Matthews, departed this offseason for sunny Los Angeles. The last time the Packers weren’t looking for linebackers or pass rushers, the now-deceased Lindy Infante was head coach.
Load all of that onto Gary and it probably doesn’t crack the top five pressure-filled football seasons in his 21 years of life.
An athletic marvel from a young age
The spotlight began to shine on Rashan Gary around the time Julius Peppers snuck into Lambeau Field to sign with the Packers as a free agent. Since then, Gary faced the pressure that arrived with the billing of the ‘best high school football recruit of all-time.’
For most future college football players, the recruiting process doesn’t begin until after their sophomore year of high school. If you’re a speedy running back or strong-armed quarterback, perhaps you’re entertaining college coaches around your sixteenth birthday.
It’s rare for a lineman – offensive or defensive – to garner so much attention from colleges as early in their high school career. There’s nothing personal about it, but most young men haven’t grown enough, vertically or horizontally, for a school to garner offering a scholarship. It was a rare gift for a defender to have physically matured at such a young age.
When Rashan Gary woke up on his sixteenth birthday and looked in the mirror, what he saw staring back at him was 6-4, 280 pounds. He would spend three high school football seasons learning how to control and manipulate his dominating frame before college. Most lineman are lucky to have one such season.
The USA Today named Gary to their nationwide high school All-American team in 2014 as a junior – one of just five juniors. 30 schools offered him a scholarship, and more would have if they could get a hold of him.
Offensive lines have had a hard time getting a hold of him, too. Gary’s high school, Paramus Catholic, won just three games in his senior season – one where he terrorized opposing offenses with 29 tackles in the backfield and 13.5 sacks in only nine games. Opponents spent all week preparing and planning to stop Gary, and he still tackled the running back or quarterback behind the line of scrimmage about five times a game.
The bar raised even higher in his high school football finale. He sacked the quarterback a record three times in the Under Armour All-American Game.
Putting “rare athlete” into context
Football dilutes the meaning of words like rare and unique when describing players. Brett Favre is unique – there won’t be another quarterback with the combination of unprecedented success, raw talent, and a lackadaisical attitude in our lifetime. The physical prowess of Julius Peppers was rare – at 34, he outran a rookie running back months removed from a 4.41 40-yard dash on a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown. It’s flattering and fun to call players like former Packers receiver Jeff Janis a rare athlete, but it’s intellectually dishonest. Yes, Janis had prodigious straight-line speed, but he remained on the sidelines for two teams over four years. That’s not rare, that’s an optimistic career outcome for a seventh-round draft pick.
Rashan Gary is a rare athlete. If you measured his 2014 Nike tournament performance in combine drills as a 17-year-old against the defensive linemen tested at the NFL Combine six months later, Gary excelled in every drill.
He still had two seasons of high school football left to play.
His arrival at the University of Michigan marked the high point of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. It also marked a harsh reality for Rashan Gary. The Wolverines had no plans to change their defense to match his skills. Every time he had played competitive football, his coaches had tailored their scheme to make him the star. Instead, Gary served as decoy to free other defenders. He didn’t let the not-so-subtle message affect his effort. After three seasons, Harbaugh named him Michgan’s hardest worker and best player.
“I think the best part of his game is he’s such a tremendous athlete,” Greg Mattison, his defensive line coach at Michigan, told Packer Report this spring. “His first step is as quick as anybody. When you’re a great athlete with great character, it’s pretty hard to not be successful. I think that’s what the Packers are going to find out. They’ve got a great one right here.”
Packers plan to use Rashan Gary creatively
The versatility Gary’s athleticism allows the Packers is a blessing and a curse. For a defensive coordinator so bent on trying to wrestle control away from the offense, the potential to play Gary in the same spot as Mike Daniels one play and Za’Darius Smith the next is dizzying. It can also be dizzying mentally for a rookie trying to adjust to the NFL. Two years ago, then-rookie Josh Jones tried balancing Dom Capers’ scheme as both linebacker and safety. It was too much, and he struggled to make it on the field.
The delicate balance between providing enough variety to confuse a quarterback alongside enough consistency to keep your players’ minds sharp is what separates the great defensive minds.
Mike Smith is the defensive mind charged to help Gary balance the physical and mental sides of the game. The Packers new outside linebackers coach was so excited by Gary’s selection that he was running up and down the hallway in Lambeau Field on draft night after the pick. In minicamp, the rookie was playing on the second-team behind free agents Za’Darius and Preston Smith, but it seems to be temporary.
“A guy that size and that speed and that athleticism, I’ve never seen it,” Smith told Jason Wilde in June. “When you’re a tackle in this league, and you’ve got (to deal with) a guy that’s got a get-off and speed and you’re strong and you’re powerful, it’s a dangerous combination. We’ve just got to learn how to use those tools.”
Where Michigan used Gary singularly in their defense, Smith and his defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will use him differently. The first sign was in his roster designation – he’s now an outside linebacker.
If not for football, the analytical-minded Pettine has the skillset of an engineer. The Packers’ defensive mastermind approaches a problem much like an engineer does – pragmatically, using only the tools available. In 2018, he coached a defense full of street free agents at two crucial positions – pass rusher and safety – to be a respectable unit.
“He’s got rare gifts,” Packers scout Joe Hueber said of Gary. “A guy that size who runs that speed and moves on his feet like that and he can really bend. He’s a guy because of his size and speed and versatility that you’d hope you can move him around on the front.”
Instead of a worn-down No. 2 pencil racing towards the quarterback, Pettine’s toolbox contains the multi-tool Gary. Is it a ballpoint pen? Yes. Corkscrew? Yes. Screwdriver? Yes. Ruler? Yes.
No pressure, Rashan.