GREEN BAY—An offensive line that has been in flux all season is making another change this week, and this one looks permanent.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is taking over at center for Jeff Saturday for Sunday's game against Tennessee and for the rest of the season, barring another injury up front.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy suggested on Friday that the coaching staff was leaning toward starting Dietrich-Smith at center, and in the locker room following that statement both players spoke in terms of the torch being passed.
"I told Dietrich I fully support him, and I think he'll do a good job," said Saturday, a 14-year veteran who, like Dietrich-Smith, came into the league as an undrafted free agent. "I told him to make the most of it.
"We all get our chance somehow, and whenever you do, you've got to take advantage of it. When I got my chance, I made the most of mine. I hope he does the same."
The 37-year-old Saturday, who signed with the Packers this season after 13 years with the Colts that included five Pro Bowl selections, said he's not surprised at the change but admitted it's still "disappointing and tough" to be replaced.
Saturday missed two days of practice this week due to neck and shoulder injuries before returning to the field on Friday. He's listed as probable on the injury report and McCarthy said he's available to play, so the starting lineup change is not injury-related.
Dietrich-Smith started four games at left guard earlier this season when T.J. Lang shifted out to right tackle to replace the injured Bryan Bulaga. In the fourth of those starts, vs. Detroit on Dec. 9, Dietrich-Smith earned a game ball from the coaching staff for his best performance as a pro.
Last week, with Lang returning to left guard, Dietrich-Smith was back in the role of sixth man, but now he's being given a chance at the position McCarthy calls his best, center. It's a de facto audition for the third-year pro to potentially lock down that spot for the future, but of more immediate concern is helping the playoff-bound Packers advance as far as they can this season.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has spoken in the past of the confidence he has in Dietrich-Smith and that he sees Dietrich-Smith as potentially the Packers' center of the future.
"For him to say he has a lot of faith in me means a lot to me, but it's something I want to go out there and prove to the other guys that we fit really good together and that we all belong out there," Dietrich-Smith said.
With Dietrich-Smith at center on Sunday, the Packers will be starting their fourth different offensive line combination in the last four games. Two weeks ago, undrafted rookie Don Barclay took over at right tackle when Lang had an ankle injury, and then last week Lang (who is probable on the injury report after missing practice time this week with a concussion) moved back to left guard.
Developing chemistry with the new starting five could take some time, Dietrich-Smith said, but with seven starts at guard over the past two seasons, it's not as though he's new to his linemates.
"To get this opportunity, I just hope I can go out there and make the coaches proud," said Dietrich-Smith, who repeatedly mentioned the respect he has for Saturday and how much he appreciates the relationship they've had this season.
By all accounts, that respect is mutual.
"We're at two totally different points in our career," Saturday said. "His is on the up ramp, mine's on the way out.
"I've put the best I can be out there. If that's not good enough and somebody is better, they deserve to play. I've always felt like that. I respect 'Diety' enough to say if that's his, then he needs to take it and go do a good job with it." Additional coverage - Dec. 21