Every preseason has its share of standouts, through that effect doesn't always last into and through the regular season. There's always a Quinn Gray (who led the NFL with 562 preseason passing yards in 2009), a Mkristo Bruce (who had 3.5 preseason sacks in 2008), and a Quincy Wilson (tied with Brandon Jacobs for the 2006 preseason rushing yardage lead at 217 yards). Once in a while, though, someone will break out of that exhibition fog and make a real name for himself.
This year, that someone could be Green Bay Packers linebacker Vic So'oto. The BYU alum has been creating a buzz through the preseason, and he really broke loose against the Chiefs on Thursday with 1.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, and a forced fumble. The Packers won the game, 20-19.
If he were able to take at level of performance into the regular season, So'oto would be adding to an interesting trend. With all the stars on their defense, the Packers have also developed a knack for turning unheralded and undrafted young players into key contributors. Last season, the defending NFL champs benefited from the work of linebacker Frank Zombo, who arrived undrafted out of Central Michigan and got a sack in the Super Bowl, and linebacker Erik Walden, who came out of nowhere as a street free agent and recorded three sacks in the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears.
Perhaps most impressive was that So'oto looked that good against Kansas City's first team. Early in the first quarter, he abused Chiefs right tackle Barry Richardson for a sack of quarterback Matt Cassel. And with 4:09 left in the first quarter, he forced a fumble on a Jamaal Charles run. He pushed off the line off a five-man front, turned to the middle in Charles' direction, and made the play. Then, with 5:15 left in the first half, he split a sack of backup quarterback with linebacker D.J. Smith. So'oto and Smith overwhelmed the Chiefs' right side in a way that made you think the Packers' starting defense was in there.
Most notable from a schematic perspective was So'oto's third-quarter interception on a zone blitz. So'oto rolled back into coverage as the Packers executed an inside blitz, jumped the quick pass to receiver Dexter McCluster, and returned the pick 33 yards for the score.
Interestingly enough, the undrafted So'oto went to the Packers on a bit of a coin flip. During the lockout, he worked out with Packers Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar, Brett Swain and Jarrett Bush. So'oto's wife Ashley said that he should take that as a sign when deciding which team to sign with as a free agent.
"She kind of liked the whole Green Bay feel," So'oto told the Associated Press in late August. "She's like, 'You've been working out with guys, and I really have a good feeling about Green Bay.' "
So far, so good. Dom Capers' multidimensional defense allows different players to shine in different ways, and So'oto's versatility has been a plus. "I think that's one of the advantages once you're in the scheme for a while, you can pick for guys that you think have the potential to come along and have a chance to develop them when they aren't ready-made guys coming in. [So'oto is] very raw, but [is] working hard and getting better."
"It's a big week for those guys," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said before the Chiefs game. "The whole combination of defense and special teams we're trying to create more opportunities for those guys on special teams. They've gotten a lot of work with the defensive snaps to this point. I think they've improved each week, which is encouraging. This'll be a big week for them."
It certainly was for So'oto — he's gone from "under the radar" to "hard to cut" on a defense that welcomes contributions from precisely those types of players.