GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy didn’t hesitate. The answer started before the question even ended.
“I think Jeff Janis has made a play every day he has been out there,” the Green Bay Packers coach said earlier this week of his rookie seventh-round wide receiver. “He made another big play today. He looks good. Hopefully, we can get him fully cleared by the medical staff for Saturday night. I really like what he’s done so far.”
Clearedbeing the key word. While he’s been averaging a big play per day in practice – including another full-extension diving grab the day after McCarthy heaped praise upon him – he missed the team’s preseason opener at Tennessee after starting training camp on the non-football injury list with shingles.
While quarterback Aaron Rodgers has teased him about what Rodgers called his “affliction” – “He gives me a hard time every day,” Janis said with a chuckle – his illness was no laughing matter. It struck on the eve of training camp and sidelined him for an entire week.
“When I was sitting in the hospital a week ago, it makes you think about things,” the former Division II all-American said. “It makes you feel blessed to be healthy to play the game of football.”
Not only did Janis miss the first week of practice, he also sat out the annual Family Night practice at Lambeau Field in front of more 67,000 fans – or roughly 55,000 more than the biggest crowd that ever saw him in college at Saginaw Valley State.
“But I can’t control that now. All I can do is move on,” Janis said. “It was the day before camp, and I didn’t know what was going on. I just ate dinner and went back to the dorms, I was going to lay low and rest for the next day and all of the sudden I had really trouble breathing. It was really stabbing pain and I just called the trainers and went to the hospital. It went away and the next day it kind of came back. I was like, ‘Man, what is going on?’
Although they eased him back into action, Janis caught his coaches’ and teammates’ attention immediately. On a throw down the left sideline during his first practice in pads, Janis extended his left arm and corralled in a pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien over the outstretched hand of cornerback Sam Shields, securing possession while landing in the back of the end zone for the score.
“I think the biggest think for me is just making plays when they come my way,” Janis said. “If I can show that, then I can convince the coaches and quarterbacks and hopefully when they put me out there they can trust me.
“I think one of my best attributes is being able to stretch the field and have the quarterback throw the ball downfield and make a play on the ball. That’s what I am trying to get done.”
Having to wait until practice No. 10 to make an eye-catching play wasn’t ideal, but since then, he’s shown off his natural athleticism while also making sure he translated the mental work he did while sidelined into physical production.
“Just paying attention in meetings and things like that,” he said. “I’ve been taking mental reps even though I haven’t been able to be in there physically doing it. I’ve just been paying attention and watching the other guys do it so when I get thrown in there I’ll be able to do it.”
Janis has always been a bit of a late-bloomer. He redshirted his freshman year of college and just two years later was named honorable mention in the All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Two years after that, he’s in the NFL.
At 6-foot-3 and 219 pounds, Janis ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash before the draft and had a 37.5-inch vertical jump. His superior size and athleticism was a key contributor to his success at a lower collegiate level, but now he’s matched up with players who are just as athletic.
“We’ve never shied away from [small-school players],” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said earlier this week, “I think history will tell you that, we’re willing to take our chances. I do think that you have to look into that a little closer.
“The prevailing argument that I think holds water against that is if you go to, say, Michigan State, you’re going to play Big Ten competition for your entire career there. But the most difficult part of that and the thing that I think helps that person grow up to be an NFL player easier than at a small school is every day competition to remain in the lineup.
“If you go to a smaller school, you might have good players around you, but if you’re NFL caliber you’re better than everybody else and maybe the competition level and the day to day competing is different. So I would think that would be a valid argument, something that we’d look into.”
So far, though, Janis is more than holding his own. In the wake of former University of Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis’ season-ending knee injury, the battle for the fifth and sixth wide receiver spots is wide open. Janis, who became good friends with Abbrederis during the pre-draft process, will have every chance to make the 53-man roster.
“I think competition brings out the best in us and in everybody,” Janis said. “If everybody is fighting for a job then everybody is going to show their best.”
Tony Cartagena covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow him on Twitter atTwitter.com/TonyCartagena