The Green Bay Packers will start D.J. Smith at inside linebacker due to the hamstring injury Desmond Bishop suffered last week in the preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers. There is no question the expectations for Smith will be high as the Packers make a legitimate run at another Super Bowl.
Smith must absorb as much knowledge and get as many quality repetitions as he can during practice from now until the beginning of the regular season. Smith has shown plenty of potential, which is why the Packers are confident that he can get the job done next to A.J. Hawk. However, there will be no room for error as defensive coordinator Dom Capers is trying to put together a flawless defense.
Smith recorded four tackles last week against the Chargers and in 16 games last season he had 43 tackles and one interception. As good as that was for being his rookie season, all eyes are on him now which means he must step up and show why Green Bay made him a starter.
Smith has made such an impression on the Packers coaching staff that they have elected to make him the only inside linebacker when the defense is in the dime package. That means Smith is ahead of Hawk and linebacker Rob Francois when Green Bay is lined up in that package. Bishop usually lined up in the dime but considering he could be lost for the season, many thought Hawk would replace him in the package that Capers plans on using more of this season.
Like head coach Mike McCarthy, Capers has plenty of confidence in Smith that he can get the job done in the middle.
“He’s got good command of the huddle, he moves well and is a physical guy,” said Capers. “He’s got good instinct in there. If they want to run the ball he’s going to show up in the right place.”
It is impressive how much of the playbook Smith has absorbed considering Capers has one of the most complicated defenses in all of football. Since Smith will be on the field on every single defensive snap this year, he has no choice but to know exactly what to do on every play and where everyone else on his side should be lined up.
“He’s a master of the defense,” rookie linebacker Terrell Manning said. “He knows the defense a lot better than a lot of guys that are here. Ask me what he did (to learn it), I couldn’t tell you. But it just kind of flowed in his head.”
Like Bishop, Smith is a fast learner who plays with his head, but he is also a brute in the middle that is not afraid to throw his body into the mix to make a stand. Capers wants ferocious guys playing the insider linebacker position who are not afraid to sacrifice their body to make a play. This could be one of the reasons why Smith is ahead of Hawk on the depth chart.
Smith and Francois got their auditions last season when Bishop and Hawk went down with injuries at the same time. Both players shined in the middle and clearly made an impression on the entire football team. Many fans had no idea who either player was but they knew they could play the game the way a middle linebacker should which is all that matters.
“Last year, D.J. was the first guy in and Francois was the next guy in,” said Capers. “They had to play for us, and they played pretty darn good.”
Smith understands what the team expects from him and he knows the great opportunity that lies ahead this season. He certainly does not plan on squandering it and whatever the team may expect from him he expects even more from himself.