He’s the player whose arm was stomped as fans carved up turkey legs last Thanksgiving, but forgive Evan Dietrich-Smith if he’d eventually like to be known as more than the target of Ndamukong Suh’s temper.
Yes, Dietrich-Smith is aware that the nationally televised incident at Detroit’s Ford Field last November will remain attached to him indefinitely. As a typical offensive lineman accustomed to anonymity, he can’t easily change his unintended place in football lore. As long as the Lions continue to host games on Thanksgiving, the stomp will probably be referenced at least once per year, if not more. He gets that.
But the versatile center-guard also gets that the first step toward a broader identity starts with putting that Detroit game, and the three subsequent starts last season that followed, to good use in training camp this summer.
Those were the first three starts of the fourth-year pro’s career – two at right guard, one at left guard – and his steady performances went a long way toward gaining the trust of his teammates and coaches. It’s trust that he’ll need to build on to make a bid, as Jeff Saturday’s backup, to potentially become the Packers’ center of the future.
“I feel like I earned a lot (of trust),” Dietrich-Smith said of his spot starts in 2011, which came in Weeks 13, 14 and 16 after he initially filled in at right guard for Josh Sitton late in the first half at Detroit on Thanksgiving.
“Sometimes I think as a young player when you’re sitting on the bench and you kind of get thrown into the frying pan, you can do one of two things. You either fall apart, or you stick with it and keep going. For me, every game I learned something new, and by my third game everything slowed way down for me.”
That progress prevented Dietrich-Smith from ever feeling overwhelmed this past spring when he was called upon to practice with the first unit. He spent the OTA sessions and minicamp as essentially the top backup at all three inside positions on the line, and on the final day of minicamp he took all the snaps with the No. 1 group at left guard in place of T.J. Lang, who sat out.
While Dietrich-Smith’s versatility at the inside positions has been his ticket to a roster spot, his future prospects with the Packers may hinge on how he performs specifically at center. Saturday, a 14-year veteran, was signed to a two-year contract to replace Scott Wells, who left as a free agent after six seasons as Green Bay’s starter. The competition for Saturday’s eventual replacement is wide open.
Practice-squad holdover Sampson Genus and undrafted rookie Tommie Draheim will be the other center prospects in camp, but neither owns Dietrich-Smith’s game experience, even if it was at guard. He “cherishes” the years he’s had to learn the center position first under Wells and now Saturday, and he’s constantly drawing upon their teachings.
“You can take multiple things from different players, and having all this knowledge in front of me is always helping,” he said. “For me it’s starting to translate to the field. Things are snapping for me a lot faster when I get out there.”
He came by the sense of urgency in part the hard way. After making the Packers’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2009, he was cut following training camp in 2010, claimed off waivers by Seattle but then released a month into the season. He rejoined the Packers as an insurance policy for the playoff and Super Bowl run and then made the team again last year.
He called the business side “one of the ugliest parts” of the league and his introduction to it “hard” and an “eye-opener.” That experience also has sharpened his focus on the opportunity now in front of him, to state his case to be in the team’s long-term plans.
If that helps make everyone’s memories of last Thanksgiving more short-term, all the better.
“When that happened, my first thought was I didn’t want it to stick with me. I’m not here to be that guy that Suh stomped on,” Dietrich-Smith said.
“I’ve just been trying to make a statement that I can play. That’s what I want to show the coaches and the fans and everybody else on the team, that if I get out there they know I can be trusted.”