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Bulaga being groomed to eventually replace Clifton at left tackle

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Bryan Bulaga didn't really enjoy the run-up to the NFL draft. He'd rather play football than be poked and prodded by scouts and analyzed by so-called draft experts.

The Green Bay Packers' first-round pick didn't really understand, for example, why some people were obsessing about the length of his arms coming out of Iowa.

"I've never been in a situation in a football game where I have thought to myself after a play, 'Gosh, I wish my arms were longer,"' Bulaga said Thursday.

According to a predraft scouting report distributed by the Packers, Bulaga's arms measured at 33 1/4 inches. That's considered a few inches shorter than ideal for a left tackle, perhaps providing a reason why Bulaga fell on draft day and -- much to the Packers' delight -- still was available with the No. 23 overall pick.

Now that he has found his home in the NFL, Bulaga can joke about it. At one point in Thursday's news conference, he looked down at his arms, smiled and shrugged.

"I don't know what you want me to say," Bulaga said. "I can't get them any longer."

Short arms or not, it's not a reach to say Bulaga is the Packers' left tackle of the future.

Thanks to the steady play of veteran Chad Clifton, there hasn't been a major need at left tackle in Green Bay for a decade. Nor, for that matter, has there been much of a succession plan in place.

Packers officials hope that changed when they drafted Bulaga last week. Going into this weekend's rookie orientation program in Green Bay, the team is giving every indication that they will begin grooming Bulaga to eventually take over for Clifton.

Bulaga said he's willing to try other positions, but made it clear that he considers himself a left tackle.

"I'd like to play left tackle," he said. "But obviously, there's a lot of work that comes with it. You have to earn that, it's not just given out."

Bulaga said he has been impressed watching Clifton play on television.

"He's played a lot of good football, and he's still playing good football," Bulaga said. "I'm just hoping that I can learn as much as I can from him."

On the other hand -- and some scouts thought Bulaga's hands were too small, by the way -- Bulaga wants to show coaches he's worthy.

"I'm going to determine if I'm on the field or not," Bulaga said. "It's as simple as that. If they don't think I'm ready, then I won't be out there. And if they do, if something happens where a guy goes down or I earn my way into a spot, then so be it."

Clifton has started 138 games for the Packers over the past 10 seasons, and re-signed with the Packers as an unrestricted free agent after drawing interest from the Washington Redskins in the offseason.

But Packers coach Mike McCarthy has expressed some concern about whether Clifton, who will turn 34 in June, can sustain his durability.

Clifton missed four games because of an ankle injury last year, including both games against division rival Minnesota. Beyond that, nagging injuries often kept him off the practice field in recent years.

And going into the draft last week, there was no player on the Packers' roster who clearly looked capable of eventually taking over for Clifton or even backing him up. Daryn Colledge struggled when asked to move from guard to tackle in the wake of Clifton's injury; T.J. Lang fared slightly better, but still is seen as a long-term right tackle or guard.

That's where Bulaga comes in.

After playing some guard as a true freshman and successfully moving to left tackle as a sophomore, Bulaga was highly regarded going into his junior season. But after playing in last year's season opener, he missed three games with a viral infection that affected his thyroid.

He returned to the field, but raised some red flags when he struggled against two of the Big Ten's best pass rushers, Michigan's Brandon Graham and Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield.

Bulaga got stronger as the season went on, and says his illness no longer is an issue. In the Orange Bowl, he shut down Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan, who was drafted No. 16 overall by Tennessee.

Now he's in Green Bay, and says he couldn't be happier.

"Playing at Iowa City, it was a smaller community," Bulaga said. "People really cared about the football team. And I feel it's the exact same way here, that the fans here really care about the organization and the players."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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