Packers' Jamari Lattimore has hunger to be successful NFL starter
Jamari Lattimore has played mostly special teams for the Packers since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
By Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel
They do not dream of playing on special teams for three seasons. Yet here was Green Bay Packers linebacker Jamari Lattimore — Under Armour hoodie over his head, hands in his pockets — dismissing the idea that he's any hungrier for Sunday's starting opportunity against the New York Jets. Again and again.
"No, nope," Lattimore said. "Hunger's always there. It never leaves. The three years, I gained a lot of experience. When experience comes, the confidence level shoots through the roof."
Fair enough. Lattimore is a no-nonsense type, one who'll never make a bold proclamation. But, yes, that hunger is rising. In fact, he's beyond hungry.
Ask the man who knows him best.
"I think he's starving. Starving," said Rick Stockstill, Lattimore's head coach and father figure at Middle Tennessee State. "I talk to him all the time. He works his tail off. He wants to be great. He wants to be a starter. He wants to be All-Pro. He wants to be in the Hall of Fame. He's driven, he's motivated. He's a competitor.
"For him to get the opportunity, to get scrimmage snaps, I guarantee he's champing at the bit. He can't wait for Sunday to get here."
That's because this Sunday, Lattimore replaces the injured Brad Jones. Sunday is Lattimore's chance to prove he deserves to be the starter long term over Jones, a chance he's been waiting for.
Yes, he started four games in 2013. But battling an illness, with Jones entrenched, Lattimore was still banished to special-teams duty. On Friday, coach Mike McCarthy virtually challenged Lattimore in saying that "some of the greatest careers were started because of an injury."
Now, this 6-foot-2, 229-pound linebacker can release any hidden, pent-up frustration that's been building.
"For me, yes, it's an opportunity, but it's just doing your job," Lattimore said. "What they brought you in here for, for you to do your job, for you to play that position."
And to be sure, Lattimore understands the full scope of this opportunity.
Many of Stockstill's players at Middle Tennessee State hail from rough upbringings, from single-parent households. Lattimore was no different. Mom and Dad weren't around — Lattimore was raised by his grandmother. From Miami, Fla., to Dodge City Community College to the Blue Raiders, Lattimore appreciated the little things. Because, well, the little things were in fleeting supply.
Stockstill remembers his first team dinner. From the buffet, Lattimore tried to take at least three steaks back to his hotel room. Survival mode kicked in.
"He loads his plate up like this is the only time he'll ever get to eat this kind of food," said Stockstill. "He asked, 'Can I take this to the room?' I said, 'Jamari, we'll have a snack tonight.' He says, 'You mean we eat like this all the time?' 'Yeah, we eat like this all the time.'
"Little things like that we might take for granted, he didn't have growing up."
The very nature of Middle Tennessee State — a Division I football safety school of sorts — elevated the hunger. In three seasons, totaling 20½ sacks and three forced fumbles, Lattimore became a product of his environment.
That edge Packers teammates see in every blood-thirsty, half-line drill was cultivated in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
"All the guys coming through our program have got that edge," Stockstill said. "We don't have 5- and 4- and 3-star recruits. Our guys — most of them — it was come to Middle Tennessee or nowhere. So we've got that chip on our shoulder that we have to go out there every day and prove we're a good player, prove that we're a good team."
Undrafted, Lattimore transitioned from end to outside linebacker to inside linebacker, serving on special teams all along the way. To this point, his career has mirrored Desmond Bishop's wait.
Those four starts in 2013 were a taste, an appetizer, and he brought a raw violence with 35 tackles and two sacks. Teammates still remember the crushing hits at Baltimore. And who spoke up at halftime when the Packers were getting embarrassed in Dallas? Lattimore.
He brings a rare emotion to each practice, fully knowing it'll tick off some players.
Through training camp, Lattimore was the pest cranking up the volume. He taunted receivers. He picked a fight with guard Josh Sitton.
"When he's on the field, he carries the energy for the defense," Lang said. "He's always talking, chirping. Us going against him, it's annoying. Also being his teammate, it's something you like to see. He's a guy who has taken advantage of the playing time he's gotten."
When Lattimore speaks, teammates listen. The guy who also kicks teammates' butts in the soccer video game FIFA carries a booming presence.
Safety Sean Richardson labels it an "electrifying" presence.
"He's energized," Richardson said. "He's one of the guys that's a vocal leader. Everybody likes it. When he talks, everybody pays attention.
"It's respect because he brings it each and every day. He doesn't just talk it — at practice he lays it out on the line every time. When you're giving it your all and players see that, players respect that."
Lattimore says the reason he stays in fifth gear is because some players, frankly, don't enjoy practice. It's natural. And, really, that's been his only chance to flex his muscles as a linebacker in the defense.
And at his locker, Lattimore doesn't consider Jones' injury his big "break." His number is being called, so he has to step up.
"Simple as that," Lattimore said.
For all the talking he does on the field, he does next-to-no talking off it. In college, Stockstill often forced the conference player of the year to speak to reporters. And earlier this week, the linebacker bee-lined across the locker room and turned down one request. He's not a talker. Heck, he wouldn't even tell anyone about the illness that bothered him all last season.
On Friday, Lattimore described it as a stomach virus mixed with an allergic reaction that went undiagnosed.
Now, he's healthy. With a chance.
Stockstill offers a window into Lattimore's true hunger this week. You bet sitting...waiting...wondering if he'll ever get promoted has been frustrating at times.
"Sure," Stockstill said. "He's such a fierce competitor. You're constantly working, you're constantly practicing, you're constantly lifting weights. To not be able to get out there and play is frustrating — especially the competitors. Jamari loves to compete. So, yeah, it's definitely frustrating when you put in all that work. They get 16 days of rewards.
"I'm sure it's frustrating for him not to get scrimmage plays as much as he would like."
To which, Stockstill's message is constant: Never relax. Lattimore was given the low, $1.431 million tender in the off-season as a restricted free agent.
As Stockstill explains to him, replacements are always in the bullpen. That hunger cannot fade. Several times to his teams, he's brought up a conversation with Brian Dawkins, the six-time All-Pro he coached at Clemson. When Dawkins was going on his 13th year in the NFL, the coach asked him how he lasted this long.
The key, Dawkins said then, is treating each day of practice "like a rookie," like a starving rookie terrified to lose his job. In August, Stockstill repeated those words to Lattimore.
Hence, the screaming maniac you saw at Ray Nitschke Field.
Stockstill doesn't see Lattimore relinquishing this starting spot without a fight. They text, talk nearly daily. Yes, Jones is the one who signed an $11.25 million, three-year contract in 2013. Lattimore is the guy on a one-year, prove-it deal.
If he performs, nothing else matters. Sunday is his shot to stick.
A shot he's been waiting for.
"Nobody ever heard of Lou Gehrig 60-70 years ago," Stockstill said. "And he got his chance. Wally Pipp never got back out there. I know Jamari will do everything he can. He'll play hard. He'll work hard. He'll prepare hard to stay on that field as long as he can because that's the kind of man he is.
"He'll embrace this opportunity."
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