TAMPA — It took a year and a half, but as he comes back to Raymond James Stadium, Sam Barrington has found himself as an NFL linebacker.
The former USF standout did not play a single down on defense as a Packers rookie last year, totaling two tackles on special teams before a hamstring injury ended his season after seven games.
But as the Packers bring him back to the stadium he called home with the Bulls, Barrington has become a key part of the defense this season, starting five games. In the past three, he has 22 tackles, more than he had in his 16 games before that.
"It's just hard work and persistence, and continuing to make the most out of practice," said Barrington, 24, a three-year starter at USF who was drafted in the seventh round in 2013.
"In high school, even in college, you can get away with just being more athletic than everybody. In the NFL you really have to put a lot of effort into improving every year."
After spending his whole life in Florida, Barrington has embraced life in small-town Green Bay, Wis., where passionate fans brave the cold for the team they love. There even might be as much green in the stands Sunday when the Packers play the Bucs as there were at some of his USF home games.
Barrington is excited to get back to Florida, family and friends.
"I've been looking forward to this game all year, not only because I get to play in that stadium, but there's a lot of people in that area and in the state of Florida who have supported me," said Barrington, who grew up in Jacksonville and hasn't played closer than Miami since joining the Packers.
Barrington, 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, was limited by hamstring trouble early this season, but in the second half he has played well enough to stay on the field in Green Bay's nickel defense. That means he takes the place of veteran A.J. Hawk, holding his own in passing situations as well as being stout against the run.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he stresses to his players how they can make major strides in their second NFL season after the initial adjustment to pro football is covered and players have a comfort level that comes with that.
"Sam's a talented, tough young man," McCarthy said this week. "The young players have to take a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, and that's clearly what you're seeing in Sam Barrington. Last year he was inactive, up and down a little bit on special teams. … Now that he's been given opportunities on defense, he's played very well."
Barrington hopes the Packers can find their way into the playoffs, and a win in his personal homecoming game would be a big step toward that goal. He is coming off his first 10-tackle game and eager to continue his surge.
"It's just overall confidence in the way you play the game," Barrington said. "You have to have a mind-set when you go out there that you want to dominate."
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Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.