In fairness to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, someone should tell the poor guy what he’s up against here.
Oh, Clinton-Dix has a terrific pedigree. He is a first-round draft pick, he won national championships at the University of Alabama in college and he has, by all accounts, made a very positive first impression with the Green Bay Packers since the team selected him No. 21 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
He is talented, his new teammates like what they’ve seen from him both on the field and in the locker room, and given the way general manager Ted Thompson views draft picks as long-term investments as opposed to short-term need-based fixes, his future will be bright regardless of whether he ends up starting as a rookie this season or not.
But if Clinton-Dix thinks he’s going to take the starting safety job away from Micah Hyde during the next 13 training-camp practices and four preseason games – and, as any competitor should, Clinton-Dix wholeheartedly believes he will – well, then someone should clue him in on how difficult it has been to get Hyde off of a football field, going back to his high-school days in Fostoria, Ohio, a city 40 miles south of Toledo and 90 miles north of Columbus.
As Fostoria’s quarterback, Hyde threw for 7,864 yards and 65 touchdowns and rushed for 3,443 yards and 46 TDs during his career, earning the 2008 Ohio Division IV Offensive Player of the Year award as a senior. But he also played safety. And cornerback. And returned punts, And returned kickoffs. And punted. And kicked field goals and extra points.
In one early-season game against Bowling Green in 2008, he ran for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, then kicked the extra point, then made a 22-yard field goal that wound up being the winning margin in a 24-21 victory. After his freshman year, Hyde doesn’t remember a single play where he wasn’t on the field.
After nearby Ohio State didn’t recruit him, he went to Iowa, where he played in all 13 games as a true freshman on special teams and as a backup on defense. Then, for the next three years, he never missed a start, starting all 38 of the Hawkeyes’ games his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
So with Hyde working with the No. 1 defense at safety alongside Morgan Burnett throughout the offseason and now through the first three days of training camp, it’s clear that Clinton-Dix has his work cut out for him over the next five weeks.
And the scary part? After playing cornerback and nickel/dime back as a rookie fifth-round pick last year, Hyde still doesn’t feel all that comfortable at safety. Imagine what he could do once he knows what he’s doing.
“I’m not there yet,” Hyde confessed before the players had their first day off of camp on Tuesday. “I still go out there, I try to play fast, I try to make things easier on myself but at the same time I think it comes with time and it comes with experience. I think every day I’m getting better and better. Once I make a mistake, I think I learn from it and I just go out there and try to not make the same mistake twice.”
And that means not losing his spot, as he did briefly last year. After winning the nickel cornerback job following Casey Hayward’s hamstring problems, Hyde was benched at midseason because of several repeated mistakes, according to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who decided to move veteran Tramon Williams inside to the slot and bring Davon House off the bench.
That marked the first time Hyde had ever lost a starting job – he was also a star basketball and baseball player as a prep – and once he regained his position, he vowed not to give it up again.
Even if he was competing with a first-round pick.
“They know I can get the job done, and I’m honored,” Hyde said. “But at the same time, it’s training camp. It’s a long process, and we’re going to have a lot more opportunities to make some plays.”
That’s certainly the way coach Mike McCarthy sees things going. He called Hyde’s transition to safety “seamless” and continued his offseason-long track record of positive reviews of him.
“Micah Hyde is a football player. I think you can line him up anywhere. You really can,” McCarthy said. “He’s had the offseason to learn the position, to get the communication down, [which is] so important. He’s a playmaker.”
So far in camp, the only time Clinton-Dix has been paired with Burnett was when defensive coordinator Dom Capers put a mish-mash of No. 1s and 2s on the field during an 11-on-11 period. When the Packers went to their nickel sub package, Casey Hayward came off the bench as the fifth defensive back. Only when they went to their dime did Clinton-Dix take the field with the first-string group, as the Packers’ six defensive backs were Williams, Sam Shields, Hyde, Hayward, Burnett and Clinton-Dix.
Asked earlier this week if he felt pressure to start as a first-round pick, Clinton-Dix said no. But he did say he expects to start.
“That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to work hard and earn a spot on this team, no matter if it’s on special teams or as the starting safety, free safety, strong safety, wherever it is,” he said. While he said he believes he can win the starting job while playing with the second unit, he also said that the coaches have given him no indication that he’ll get to work with the starters in Hyde’s place at any point.
“I just go to practice and do whatever coach says to do,” Clinton-Dix said. “It doesn’t matter to me, and it doesn’t bother me at all. Every chance I get, I’m going to take advantage of that whether it’s with the 2s or the 3s.”
And while Clinton-Dix said Hyde has been helping him pick up the playbook and the safety calls, that’s where the rookie will stay, if Hyde has any say.
“Whenever I step on the field, I’m competing. I’m trying to compete for a job. Whether it’s at safety, nickel, dime, corner or whatever, I have that mindset,” Hyde said. “I realize there’s competition and the NFL’s a business. I’m just out there trying to compete.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I think it shows the coaches have trust in me to be on the field and make some plays, so I’m excited. Whatever it is, I’m going to be out there trying to do my best.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.