Packers’ Greene saw something in Illinois State OLB Nate Palmer
By Tyler Dunne, Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY – The plan was to meet up with as many assistant coaches as possible about the art of pass rushing. Spence Nowinsky looked at the map, counted the number of NFL teams within seven hours of Bloomington, Ill., and the Illinois State defensive line coach sent out a flurry of messages.
The first to respond was Kevin Greene. The Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach was heading south soon, so he stopped at Illinois State and the two spent the day together.
As Greene and Nowinsky exchanged ideas – highlights of Clay Matthews looping on the screen – Nowinsky pictured his own edge rusher, Nate Palmer, in this defense.
“As I’m watching that, I’m thinking Nate has a great opportunity with the Packers because his skill, his athleticism, his work ethic, he fits in really good,” Nowinsky said. “It’s about getting an opportunity.”
Last weekend, the Packers gave Palmer that chance in the sixth round of the NFL draft. After losing Erik Walden in free agency and releasing Frank Zombo, there’s room for another pass rusher. Palmer was a speck on the radar elsewhere. Green Bay was his only visit and he admitted he didn’t expect to be drafted. But Greene and the Packers saw something in the Football Championship Subdivision pass rusher, and now he could be the next small-school prospect to crack the roster.
On his visit to Green Bay, the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Palmer eventually met Greene. They watched film of Matthews, and Greene offered a challenge.
“He said, ‘I can get you there, if you want it. If you want to go there, I got what it takes to get you to that next level,’ ” Palmer said. “(He said), ‘All you have to do is be a hard worker like him. I think that’s the kind of person you are. Let’s go. Let’s go to that next level.’ ”
Palmer didn’t entertain such illusions three years ago. With Illinois, he hardly played. After two seasons and eight tackles, he transferred to Illinois State and collapsed the pocket. Palmer had 17 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss during his two years with the Redbirds. A defensive end, he often rushed from a two-point stance, too.
From there, the Packers got to know Palmer better than everyone else. The meeting between Greene and Nowinsky was a mini coaching clinic. Greene broke down the pass rush for Nowinsky. And Nowinsky broke down the pistol offense for Greene, something Illinois State faces regularly.
Through Nowinsky, Greene got a sense of Palmer. And after studying Green Bay’s defense, including one full hour of the bull rush, Nowinsky believes Palmer is a fit.
“On paper they’re a 3-4 team, but not really,” said Nowinsky, also the assistant head coach. “They have a four-man front rushing the quarterback. That’s the NFL. So those two guys rushing the quarterback up on their feet, I think Nate is a tremendous asset. He’ll do very well. He’s a good athlete, he has good body size. But he has long arms (33½ inches) and a very good lower body strength-wise. He plays with football leverage. He can drop his hips and play lower than an offensive tackle.”
Transfers are an annual source of talent for an FCS team like Illinois State. As Nowinsky says, “99%” of those transfers “have a humongous, hockey bag full of skeletons.” They’re players “you really don’t want.” Palmer, he says, is in the 1%.
“Incredible worker and a stupendous student,” he said. “Great work ethic.”
The intelligence likely was a factor. On the board, Palmer was able to draw up defenses. Illinois State runs many of the same fire-zone schemes Dom Capers does. Making pre-snap reads is important, too. As first-round pick Nick Perry discovered last year, lifting your head up and scanning the entire offense is an adjustment. Palmer’s time in a two-point stance, helped.
Greene’s message about Matthews’ ascent registered.
“I watch (Matthews) all the time,” Palmer said. “I watch him and say, ‘How in the world does he do half the stuff he does?’ After talking to Kevin Greene and hearing about his work ethic and stuff like that, I see the proof on the field. . . . It’s just hard work. Right now, he’s doing jujitsu and martial arts training. He said that by Clay doing stuff like that, it allowed him to blossom into a great athlete on the field.”
First, comes the canyon-size jump from the Missouri Valley Conference to the NFC North. Nowinsky expects Palmer to take some lumps, to have his good days and his “very humbling days.” Maybe the game will overwhelm him. Still, the Packers spotted something in a prospect who was watching the draft as a fan, not a participant. Greene, a fifth-round pick who had 160 sacks in 15 seasons, can convey a powerful message.
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