GREEN BAY – The texts still come into Jake Kumerow’s phone on a semi-regular basis, his old college coach just checking in.
Both moved on from UW-Whitewater more than three years ago — Kumerow to pursue his NFL dreams, Lance Leipold to the University of Buffalo, where he’s getting set for his fourth season running the Bulls. But while time has passed, Leipold isn’t surprised that the Warhawks’ former star wide receiver hasn’t changed a bit.
Laid back and unfazed by anything in college, Kumerow is the same way today, as he battles for a spot on the Green Bay Packers wide receiver depth chart.
“It kind of fits — the hairstyle and the whole deal,” Leipold said with a chuckle Sunday afternoon — referring to Kumerow’s long, flowing locks and beard that’s approaching ZZ Top proportions. “You look at his appearance, and some people wonder. But he’s such an intense competitor. He just kind of keeps fighting along with the same attitude he had with us.”
Kumerow is going to need that competitive spirit when the Packers’ organized team activity practices kick off next week, as he’s battling with three rookie draft picks and a handful of other young receivers at a position in flux following the offseason release of veteran Jordy Nelson and free agent departure of special teams ace Jeff Janis.
“I don’t care. I don’t care at all,” Kumerow said at the end of the post-draft rookie orientation camp earlier this month — a camp he could participate in despite turning 26 in February because he’s technically a first-year player and hasn’t been on a 53-man in-season roster long enough to accrue an official NFL season.
“They could have picked five wide receivers, they could have picked no wide receivers. It makes no difference to me. I’m just focused, keeping my head straight. Just tunnel vision, man, trying to earn a spot.”
While Kumerow turned some NFL heads during the University of Wisconsin’s on-campus pro day in 2015, he went undrafted and wound up signing with the Cincinnati as a free agent. He spent that entire 2015 season on the Bengals’ practice squad, then returned to Cincinnati’s practice squad in 2016, when was elevated to the 53-man roster for the regular-season finale.
Kumerow was a game-day inactive, however, so he’s still never played in a regular-season NFL game. (He does have 10 receptions for 132 yards in preseason play, though.)
Last season, Kumerow hurt his ankle in training camp and the Bengals waived him off of injured reserve in late September. After a couple weeks on the New England Patriots’ practice squad, the Packers added him to their practice squad for the final week of the season, then re-signed him for the offseason.
“Definitely having been here, even for a week, having a chance to get to know a little bit of the system, helps,” Kumerow said.
“I think having a couple years under my belt definitely gives me an advantage of being able to play fast and not having to think about things when I’m out there. I remember my first day of rookie minicamp (in Cincinnati), my head was spinning. ‘Everything’s happening so fast, what’s happening?’ Now I was able to just treat it like another day of practice and just do my thing.”
Some of Kumerow’s personality comes from his football bloodlines. His father, Eric, was a standout linebacker at Ohio State and a first-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 1988, and his cousins are San Diego Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season, and Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who is projected to be a high first-round pick next year just as Joey was in 2016.
“I think that’s why he doesn’t get overly rattled, he’s just been around it,” Leipold said. “He’s not like some of your other Division III guys. He’s not overwhelmed.”
Kumerow, who admits to some awe when he first met quarterback Aaron Rodgers, realizes he’s can’t let that happen if he’s going to push for a roster spot.
In addition to draftees J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, the Packers also have young receivers Michael Clark, DeAngelo Yancey and Colby Pearson, all three of whom spent time on the practice squad last year.
At the same time, the position hasn’t been this wide-open in a long time. Behind No. 1 receiver Davante Adams and veteran Randall Cobb are Geronimo Allison, a former undrafted free agent with 35 career regular-season receptions; Trevor Davis, a 2016 fifth-round pick with eight career catches; and Clark, a converted college basketball player who caught four passes during his late-season roster call-up last year.
Kumerow, who started his college career at Illinois as a walk-on, caught 143 passes for 2,447 yards and 33 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Whitewater, and at 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds has the size the Packers like .
“Obviously I’m still a Packers fan — even out here — andI always thought of him as a poor-man’s Jordy Nelson, with his length and his speed,” Leipold said. “His second year with us, he took as a big a jump as anybody I’ve ever been a part of and really separated himself as a player. At the Division III level, he was able to take games over and be a difference-maker, especially in the red zone.
“But more than his length and his athletic ability, his work ethic and his practice habits – those are the little things that I think have kept him around (in the NFL).”
Now, Kumerow will have to do even more to stay around.
“I got to learn a lot in a week, watching these guys play. This is a big-time organization. I’m glad to be a part of it, and learning from guys like Jordy and Aaron, even for that one week, that definitely gets you excited,” said Kumerow, whose younger brother, Derek, has three years left at Whitewater. “It’s different, putting on the green-and-gold. That’s something I dreamed of as a kid. It’s a pretty awesome feeling. It gives you a little more confidence walking in the door. You feel pretty cool.”