Last year in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions, D.J. Smith was thrust into action on a moment’s notice when Desmond Bishop pulled a calf muscle late in the first quarter.
The rookie from Appalachian State held up well and finished with seven tackles and a quarterback hit. The next week against the New York Giants, he made his first career start. He tied for the team lead with nine tackles and had the hit on quarterback Eli Manning that forced the errant throw Clay Matthews picked off and returned 38 yards for a touchdown. A week later, he started his second straight game and again tied for the team lead with nine tackles and intercepted a pass against the Oakland Raiders.
Now, Smith will be called upon again to fill in for Bishop, who sustained a serious and potentially season-ending hamstring injury in Thursday’s preseason opener at San Diego.
Coach Mike McCarthy confirmed on Saturday that Bishop will need surgery on his hamstring.
“Desmond’s season is in jeopardy,” McCarthy said. “Once we have the surgery, we’ll probably have a better idea of his status for the season.”
Smith said he “can’t replace (Bishop), but you try to fill the void as much as possible.”
This time, the second-year pro feels even more prepared to do so.
“With the year in, learning the game a little bit more, a little bit more time under my belt with a full offseason,” Smith said, “I feel a little bit more comfortable.”
Smith said his performance against the Chargers graded out well from an assignment standpoint but said he missed a few tackles. He also said he should have stayed with tight end Antonio Gates longer on Gates’ 23-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter.
So far this summer, Smith has actually taken more snaps with the No. 1 defense than Bishop, who missed the first week of training camp because of a calf injury he sustained while working out on his own last month.
Though undersized at 5-foot-11 and 239 pounds, Smith has many of the attributes the Packers look for in an inside linebacker. He’s strong, smart, communicates well and can run. In fact, he’s better in coverage than A.J. Hawk, the Packers’ other starter inside. That’s why Smith likely will assume Bishop’s spot as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package that defensive coordinator Dom Capers plans to employ more of this season.
Journeyman Robert Francois probably falls in behind Smith in the pecking order at inside linebacker, but Francois has more experience backing up Hawk’s “buck” inside linebacker spot rather than playing Bishop’s dime spot. Second-year pro Jamari Lattimore, who switched from outside linebacker this season, could become Smith’s backup.
“It’s pretty much next man up,” Francois said. “Obviously we’ve got two different positions, so I don’t know how the coaches are going to do it, whether theyre going to move guys around. But they’re very similar. We’ve all been playing all the different positions this camp, so it’s not a big deal.”
Bishop was not in the locker room during Saturday’s media availability but several teammates said he was at the team’s facility.
“I talked to him a little bit,” Smith said. “He’s in good spirits. Of course, he doesn’t want to be down with the injury, but he’s in good spirits right now.”
McCarthy wouldn’t rule out a possible return later this season for Bishop, especially if the new rule in which one injured reserve player can return after eight weeks is approved by the NFL Players Association.
“We’ve talked about a number of those options, and frankly the medical information will drive that decision,” McCarthy said.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.