GREEN BAY, Wis. — If Vic So'oto turns out to be a keeper, the Green Bay Packers personnel department will owe his wife Ashley a huge thank-you.
"I live by the motto, 'Happy wife, happy life,'" So'oto said with a grin.
That credo may also lead him to a roster spot with the defending Super Bowl champions.
After going undrafted out of BYU this spring, the rookie outside linebacker had three offers when the NFL lockout was lifted in late July — from the Packers, Cardinals and Dolphins. The Cardinals were the only team he visited before the draft, and while Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene called him during the draft, So'oto didn't have a preference when the signing period opened.
"Going undrafted, you know that all the teams have passed you up at least seven times," So'oto explained in advance of Thursday's preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game that could make or break his bid for a spot on the team's 53-man roster. "I didn't really mind where I went, so my wife made the decision, and here I am. It's the best spot I could be in."
Ashley's reasoning was simple: During the lockout, he husband worked out in the San Diego area with then-Packers players Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar, Brett Swain and Jarrett Bush. She took that as a sign.
"She kind of liked the whole Green Bay feel," So'oto said. "She's like, 'You've been working out with guys, and I really have a good feeling about Green Bay.'"
It's the way So'oto has fit the Packers' 3-4 defense that could make for a perfect blend of player, family and team.
So'oto and fellow undrafted rookie Jamari Lattimore each had sacks in the Packers' 24-21 victory over Indianapolis last Friday, and both will get a long look against the Chiefs at Lambeau Field. So'oto's sack came against Colts starting right tackle Ryan Diem and forced a Curtis Painter fumble that the Packers recovered.
While neither player has the first-round pedigree of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews, they do fit the Packers' knack for unearthing undrafted talent and for finding promising outside linebackers in less prominent places.
The three primary competitors for the starting job opposite Matthews all came from humble NFL beginnings: Frank Zombo, who is sidelined with a fractured shoulder blade, was undrafted out of Central Michigan last year and had a sack in the Super Bowl; Erik Walden was on the street when injuries struck and wound up recording three sacks in a playoff-clinching victory over Chicago in the regular-season finale; and Jones was a 2009 seventh-round pick who started eight games as a rookie and started five more last year before a season-ending shoulder injury.
"You know from playing this defense for a long time, you're going to have to look for those guys. You aren't going to find many ready-made guys coming out of college," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has been coaching his 3-4 system for more than 25 years.
"Clay really had the skill set to do all the things we ask him to do. We're very fortunate there. It's not an easy position to find," Capers said. "But you look at people who have been playing this defense for a long time like Pittsburgh, and they've always had guys ready to step in. When somebody left, they had a competent guy to put in there. 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 and Lattimore) are very raw, but they're working hard and getting better."
With Zombo sidelined indefinitely, Walden is the projected starter but the Packers figure to find room on the roster for either So'oto or Lattimore - or both - when the cuts are made Saturday.
"It's a big week for those guys," coach Mike McCarthy said. "This'll be a big week for them."
Last year, the Packers kept three undrafted rookies (Zombo, cornerback Sam Shields and center/guard Nick McDonald) on their 53-man roster coming out of camp, and Zombo and Shields both played key roles during the championship run - a fact So'oto knew before arriving in Green Bay.
"Especially when you don't get drafted, you definitely look at guys that have made the squad that were undrafted," So'oto said. "Frank was a big guy — he had a sack in the Super Bowl as an undrafted free agent."2 comments on this story
So'oto briefly played tight end and outside linebacker in college before settling in at defensive end, and he admitted Monday that as a linebacker he is "a horrible technician" at this point. Although So'oto has done his best to make up for it with a high-energy approach, Greene has been on his case constantly about his fundamentals.
"I'm a smash-'em-in-the-mouth, go-through-a-guy type of guy. Kevin Greene is that type of coach, so we kind of hit it off, so to speak," So'oto said. "(But) I've got to continue to work on technique. I try to muscle guys because it's what I got away with in high school and college. But in order to play in this league at this position at a high level, you have to have the right technique, the right fundamentals."
So for now, the 6-foot-3, 263-pound So'oto has been a sponge around Matthews and Greene, hoping his production and potential lead to a roster spot.
"It's just a lot of soaking it in and listening and learning — and a lot of writing," he said. "I think once you get to this level, you have confidence in your game and know you can play it at a high level. Then you go out and prove it. I think, no matter what happens, if I get cut, I know I'll land somewhere else and go from there."