Tretter played tight end and left tackle at Cornell. So, not only did he play against inferior Ivy League competition, but he hadn’t played center in a game in his life. That chance was supposed to come at the Senior Bowl. Instead, he sustained a broken nose at practice. The Packers made Tretter a fourth-round pick last year, only for him to sustain a serious ankle injury during the first week of organized team activities and miss most of the season.
Nonetheless, the Packers were confident enough in Tretter to let established starter Evan Dietrich-Smith depart in free agency.
“We liked him a lot in college,” general manager Ted Thompson said this week. “We thought he could play. We did some workouts and stuff with him as a center. Sometimes, that’s not an exact science because you have two or three guys at a pro day doing that sort of thing. But the makeup of being a player, where he winds up playing, you never know, but so far he looks OK.”
So far, Tretter has been more than OK. After being tossed around in alarming fashion by B.J. Raji to start training camp, Tretter has settled in. There were no magical moments when it all started to click. Rather, it was the progression of a young player who not only is intelligent but uses that intelligence to his advantage.
“What you can point to is, No. 1, is that he knows the offense inside-out from a mental standpoint,” offensive line coach James Campen said this week. “It’s allowed him to accelerate faster with his fundamentals, of the physicality of playing the position. That is a huge benefit for him because he doesn’t have to think. He can make the call or go with somebody else’s call and he can go ahead and work on his trade after the ball’s snapped. That always helps a player accelerate what they’re doing when they know exactly what they’re supposed to do from a mental standpoint.
“He’s taken full advantage of that because now it’s just a matter of him adjusting his game by body type of defender, defensive alignment. ‘Do I step this far on this one? Is my hand placement here or is it there?’ Angles, how to track someone to the second level, all of those things are improving because he does not have to think about the play or the adjustment or a call or a call that someone else makes. That’s seamless for him. That’s why you’re seeing him improving. Minimizing your mental errors allows you to play faster and accelerate your growth from a fundamental standpoint.”
After back-to-back strong preseason performances against Tennessee and, impressively, St. Louis, there is no doubt who will be starting at Seattle in Week 1. Tennessee’s defensive line isn’t one of the Titans’ strengths. St. Louis’ defensive line, on the other hand, is the strength of the franchise, with four first-round picks and two third-rounders on the depth chart. As guard Josh Sitton said, “On paper, they should kill us, ya know?” In reality, Tretter had his way.
“That was very good for him,” Campen said. “You’ve got to understand, in that first game, it was in a rainstorm with a wet ball. Boom, he checked that off. On grass, he checked that off. In the rain, he checked that off. Now, you go in and you’re playing on turf. It’s a different deal. So, when you start checking those things off — each week is a different checkoff for him and it builds confidence. ...
“What’s really encouraging is he played well but he’s got a lot more things that he needs to build into his toolbox. Right now, he’s got two screwdrivers and a crescent wrench. There’s about 20 other tools. Each day as we move on and each experience that challenges him, he’s going to add another tool to his toolbox. He’s able to do that because he mentally knows what he has to do, so he can try things in practice and, at the expense of losing a one-on-one (rep in practice), try a different set, try a different hand pattern. We keep adding a little bit more to each one. It’s a luxury to be able to coach a guy like that but also for the player to accelerate his growth.”
At one point, Aaron Rodgers expressed concern about losing Dietrich-Smith — who he hoped would be the long-term solution at the position — and having to work with a fourth starter in as many years. Tretter’s play, however, have won over the quarterback.
“I think ‘surprise’ would be disrespectful to J.C. I think he's done a great job,” Rodgers said. “Like I said after the game, I have no worries about him, no reservations with him starting the season as the guy and moving forward in that direction. He's a smart guy. He's done everything the way that we want him to do it. He's gained the trust of (guards) T.J. (Lang) and Josh (Sitton), which is hard to do, and myself. I think the three of us are important for the center because it's his two sideboards and the guy that's in his ear the most in myself. I'm really proud of J.C. He's done a great job and he gives us absolutely zero cause for concern at the position.”
For what it’s worth — and it’s not much right now — Tretter is ProFootballFocus.com’s fifth-ranked center among those who have played 25 percent of the snaps. Dietrich-Smith is ranked 78th out of 79.
“Every day more comfortable, every day more confident. And that’s how it’s been,” Tretter said. “It’s been a process of each day building off the other and correcting all the mistakes you have and building off the good plays. So, that’s how it’s been, and I think that’ll continue for awhile. There’s still plenty of room to grow. I’m just going to keep taking advantage every day.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.