GREEN BAY – Evan Dietrich-Smith knows his role with the Green Bay Packers. That’s something the 26-year-old couldn’t say in years past.
But now, it’s clear: After working as the main backup at three positions – left guard, center and right guard – the past two seasons, the fifth-year offensive lineman can say he is the starting center.
“It’s definitely a lot easier when you can focus in on one spot and work all your techniques for that,” Dietrich-Smith said following a recent offseason practice. “It helps you down the road. It helps you right now. When you keep your focus on one thing and everybody’s in the same spot, it definitely helps a lot.”
Oddly, after coach Mike McCarthy reconfigured the team’s offensive line this offseason, Dietrich-Smith is the only one in the same spot. He’s the constant amid changes all around him.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. An undrafted free agent out of Idaho State, Dietrich-Smith made the team in 2009 and was active for 13 games, mostly playing special teams. The Packers cut him on the final roster reduction at the end of training camp in 2010, and he later caught on with the Seattle Seahawks. He was never active in four games in Seattle, though, and was released that October.
Out of football, and with his wife, Misty, set to give birth to the couple’s first child, Dietrich-Smith’s priorities were changing. And when Green Bay re-signed him in Week 17, for what turned out to be a stretch run to a Super Bowl XLV victory, he knew what was important.
“When I had my daughter, I wasn’t even on the team,” Dietrich-Smith said of his now 2 1/2-year-old girl, Jocelyn. “That’s when you realize what your goals and priorities are, and it’s not about you anymore.”
The change in priorities began during the NFL lockout in the 2011 offseason. A healthier diet, getting more sleep and just a more professional approach paid off that season. Dietrich-Smith played in all 16 games and started three when right guard Josh Sitton was sidelined by injury.
At the same time, he was working as the backup center to veteran Scott Wells. When Wells signed with the St. Louis Rams in March 2012, Dietrich-Smith thought it might be his chance to be a starter. Instead, the Packers brought in veteran Jeff Saturday in a rare free-agent signing.
Despite the setback, Dietrich-Smith continued to push forward. He ended up starting four of the team’s first 14 games at left guard when injuries hit the offensive line. And when McCarthy decided to bench Saturday with two games left in the regular season, Dietrich-Smith took over and started the final two regular-season games and both playoff games.
“Last year, he was a guy we really hadn’t seen play much but obviously everybody trusted him when he got in there he played well,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “And finally got the chance last year to take over that center job and really hasn’t looked back.
“We’ve been through a lot of the same things. The off-field changes. Eating healthier. Not staying out so late. We’ve been through a lot of those changes together. Obviously we haven’t taken the same path, but he’s just a guy that keeps overcoming all the adversity he’s been through, and he’s really a great guy to have there in the center of the line. He’s a smart guy and athletic. He can really get the job done for us.”
Though Dietrich-Smith appears to be soft-spoken in the Packers locker room, he can’t be that way on the field. The position – more than any other on offense, other than quarterback – requires the player to recognize what the defense is doing and make adjustments.
“He’s always been a guy – even dating back two years ago – who’s always vocal in the line room, asking questions and always very involved,” Lang said. “And really – we ask that out of no matter who plays center for us. You have to be the leader of that group during the play. You have to make sure everybody is on the right page. Get the calls in, get the calls from the quarterback. There is so much that goes on that one misstep by that guy (and) the rest of the offense could be thrown off. I think he’s done a great job of really grasping that position and continuing to grow as a leader. Always doing the right things.”
Dietrich-Smith – like most players his age -- is still an unfinished product. He’s made just four starts at the position in his career and is developing a relationship with the rest of the line and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
This offseason was a mixed bag for him. On one hand, the Packers offered him the lowest possible restricted free agent tender – despite his being a starter – and when the market was quiet, Dietrich-Smith signed the $1.323-million tender in April.
On the other hand, the Pacekrs not only didn’t draft a player at his position, they didn’t sign anyone that could realistically challenge him this year. Greg Van Roten, an undrafted free agent himself, has essentially moved into Dietrich-Smith’s old spot as a swing player between center and guard. And while the Packers have worked tackle Don Barclay at center – a position he told offensive line coach James Campen he played for a couple weeks in training camp his freshman year at West Virginia – he’s in competition for the starting right tackle spot.
So while Campen says Dietrich-Smith has competition, it’s clear the Packers are counting on him heavily.
“He is running with the first group and he’s earned that right so far to do that,” Campen said. “Now, for him, you have a kid who’s a dense kid – he’s very solid and compact. He’s a 310-pound guy who really understands the scheme. He really flipped the switch two years of taking his job more professionally, here and outside, and he’s reaping the benefits of that. It’s through hard work that’s put him in that position. He needs to grow and he understands that he needs to get better, and he will get better. He’s not topped out yet, there’s no question. His work ethic and attitude were displayed in those four starts and he’s earned the right to be with the first group.”
Dietrich-Smith’s story -- of undrafted free agent to starter with the Packers -- is not a new one for the franchise. This year’s team alone could have six starters, including Dietrich-Smith, that didn’t get picked in the NFL’s annual restocking of talent. So with the most recent bunch of hopefuls joining the team in the past month, which does include a pair of offensive linemen, Dietrich-Smith had some advice as they started their journey.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” Dietrich-Smith said. “Nothing is guaranteed for you especially coming from that spot. You definitely have to work your way up through, but the harder you work, and the more you show that they can trust you, the more opportunities you’re going to get. When you get offered those opportunities you need to take full advantage of them.”
It’s because Dietrich-Smith took advantage of his opportunities that he’s able to concentrate on his most important goal.
“Win, man,” Dietrich-Smith said. “That’s what it’s all about. Just winning.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.