No matter how you sliced it, new center J.C. Tretter looked overmatched during the first few padded practices of training camp. Time and again, B.J. Raji locked onto Tretter, pushed him into the backfield, then tossed him aside to make the tackle.
“Every day with the pads, he’s gotten better and improved,” offensive line coach James Campen said one day before the Family Night practice. “It’s a situation where a guy gets to see himself live, in pads against a guy, makes a correction and moves on. He’s done a good job with that. He’s just honing his trade right now and taking steps every day. He’s doing a good job.”
Playing center in a game for the first time of his NFL career on Saturday night at Tennessee, Tretter turned in a strong performance.
On Green Bay’s third play from scrimmage, the Titans’ Sammie Hill shed Tretter and tackled James Starks for a 2-yard gain. After that, though, Tretter owned Hill to help Green Bay’s No. 1 offense march into the end zone.
On Starks’ next run, a 4-yard gain, Tretter locked onto Hill, drove him 5 yards downfield and finished by putting Hill on the ground. On the next play, Starks cut back behind Tretter’s block for a gain of 3. On third-and-3, Starks rumbled for 11 yards. Tretter went to his left and pushed second-team All-Pro Jurrell Casey well down the line of scrimmage.
Starks took his next run 20 yards for a touchdown. Tretter didn’t have a dominant block but he locked onto Hill long enough for Starks to break into the open field.
“To go out in your first NFL start and you’ve got to play in a rainstorm, I don’t know if we could create a tougher situation for a center,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Tretter’s early struggles were predictable. At Cornell, Tretter played tight end for two seasons and left tackle for two seasons. It’s not just that Tretter didn’t play center in college. And it’s not just that Tretter faced subpar competition in the Ivy League. It’s that Tretter usually blocked an inferior 250-pound defensive end rather than a talented, 300-plus-pound defensive lineman 6 inches from his face mask.
Tretter’s development last year was ruined when, just weeks after being drafted, he sustained a major ankle injury during OTAs. He returned for the last several weeks of the season but those weren’t full-speed, full-contact practices.
If Tretter was struggling with transition, Campen could commiserate.
“I went through the transition from high school to junior college,” Campen recalled this week. “When I went to junior college, I was a guard and a defensive end. I went to junior college, a national-championship team, Sac(ramento) City (College). I’ll never forget, coach (Jerry) Sullivan said, ‘Hey, what do you want to get out of this? If you want to be a guard or a defensive end — because you’re telling me, James, that you want a Division I scholarship, and I think you will get a scholarship but you might be playing at a smaller school.’ And I said ‘No, no. Everybody has dreams of playing in the Pac-10’ or whatever it may be.
“He said, ‘If you want to accomplish that goal and move on with your career, you need to put the ball in your hand and be a center.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And I’ll never forget, he told me, ‘You’re going to have a couple weeks where it’s going to be challenging for you. But you’ve just got to stay in the hole, do everything with one hand, do all these different things. … You’ve got a guy that’s even tighter (on you at the line of scrimmage), you don’t get that initial pre-snap separation. It’s going to be a struggle.’ And so for J.C., and he had some practices last year which helped him, but he had a whole offseason and then you put on the pads and it’s a different game. Hey, he’s got a big challenge with Josh Boyd and B.J. Raji, big people pressing him. It’s just through stacking success — what worked, what didn’t.”
Sullivan told Campen that the transition would be difficult. Campen delivered a similar message to Tretter.
“You’re going to have days where you go, ‘Why am I doing this? I was a pretty good guard. I was a pretty good D-end. Can I just go play that?’ You just have to stay at it. J.C. is such a tough-minded kid. This guy, you’re not going to rattle this kid. And he’s accepted it — the coaching, the feedback has been great and he’s just progressing all the time.”
The early hard knocks appear to be paying off. A motivated Raji, who is off to a big start with his move back to nose tackle, has given Tretter some tough love throughout the first two weeks of training camp.
“He’s a heck of a football player, so you’re going to get great looks against him and you’re going to be able to pick up some techniques and some things you’ve got to do to play against guys at this level,” Tretter said this week. “I think he’s one of the better players at the nose tackle in this league. Anytime you get Josh Boyd and Mike Daniels and any of the guys that line up over you, each rep is important at this point, just getting more and more experience at the position.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.