GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy knew he couldn’t play favorites. No matter how big of a University of Wisconsin fan he’s become, or how long he’s been living in his adopted home state.
Or how much of his paycheck goes to the local government.
“Being a Wisconsinite now, I pay taxes,” the Green Bay Packers 13th-year head coach said with a smile Saturday morning. “I don’t have to claim that, I guess.”
But he can claim to be a Badgers fan — he just couldn’t figuratively wave his cardinal-and-white pom-pons in support of undrafted free agent defensive lineman Conor Sheehy or tryout safety Joe Ferguson, both of whom took part in the team’s two-day post-draft rookie orientation camp.
During his time in Green Bay, McCarthy has built a relationship with athletic director Barry Alvarez, whose final season as the Badgers’ coach ended right before McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay began, and current head coach Paul Chryst.
McCarthy attended the UW-LSU game at Lambeau Field in September 2016 — his first in-person college game in two decades — and when the Packers drafted linebacker Vince Biegel last spring, McCarthy said he definitely roots for the Badgers.
That said, Sheehy didn’t get signed — and Ferguson didn’t get invited to camp — just so McCarthy and general manager Brian Gutekunst could do Alvarez and Chryst a favor by bringing in a couple of their guys.
“I’m glad they’re here,” McCarthy said. “I thought they did some really nice things. You have to be (fair) about it, but you know they’re well coached. You know they have some growth (in front of them) just because they’re young, but yeah, you always like to see the hometown guys do a little better.”
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Sheehy, who grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point and went to Milwaukee Marquette, came to Green Bay on a pre-draft visit and signed with the Packers shortly after the draft ended last weekend. While he received offers from other teams, the impression the Packers made on him during his visit — and the chance to play for the team he grew up cheering for — was too good to pass up.
“The coaching staff played a huge part in it. It’s a great organization and I think it’s a really good opportunity,” Sheehy said after Saturday’s practice. “I think scheme-wise, it’s a good fit. That’s a big part in it. And they take care of their players here. They give (undrafted) guys a legitimate opportunity, so that’s definitely something that also played a part.
“There’s definitely some good stuff that happened, and there’s definitely a lot I have to work on, a lot of things to get better at. It’s great to be in a new environment and have new competition. I’m just excited to have a chance with an organization like this.”
Ferguson, meanwhile, will have to wait and see if he gets his chance. He wasn’t among the tryout players the Packers signed Saturday — ESPN reported that Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini and Miami (Ohio) tight end Ryan Smith were the only two immediately signed — but the team has brought tryout players back later in the offseason. Guard Lucas Patrick, for instance, wasn’t signed right away after the 2016 rookie camp but was brought back about a month later and is now in contention for a starting job on the offensive line.
Of course, for state football fans, it’s just nice to see the Packers bringing ex-Badgers into the fold. Last season, tight end Lance Kendricks and Biegel became the 18th and 19th former UW players to see regular-season action with the Packers. The only other ex-Badgers to come through the program since 2000 had been right tackle Mark Tauscher (2000-10), guard Bill Ferrario (2002); quarterback Scott Tolzien (2013-15) and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (2014-16).
“I know for a long time (former GM) Ted Thompson was scared to death to bring one into the building,” McCarthy said with a hearty laugh. “(So) It’s great to have some Badgers in our program.”
McCarthy acknowledged what most assumed would be the case after the team granted incumbent punter Justin Vogel his release Friday: The job is rookie fifth-round pick JK Scott’s. “I think it’s obvious,” McCarthy replied when asked what the plan is at punter. The upside of carrying just one punter in training camp is it gives the team one extra spot on the 90-man roster for competition at another position. … After a week off, the rookies will return for workouts May 14, McCarthy said. … McCarthy had high praise for two non-rookies. One was outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert, who is expected to challenge for playing time this season (“It’s incredible what he’s done in his time here”) and the other was quarterback DeShone Kizer, whom the team acquired in a March trade with Cleveland. McCarthy said Kizer, who started 15 games as a rookie for the Browns last season, “would’ve been part of” the five quarterbacks who went in the first-round of last week’s NFL draft had he stayed in school. “I think he has exceptional arm talent,” McCarthy said. “I think he has a bright future.”