A difficult decision looms for the Green Bay Packers at center and Corey Linsley isn't making things any easier.
The fifth-round pick out of Ohio State has more than held his own in the five games starting in place of JC Tretter, who was placed on temporary injured reserve at the beginning of the season due to an impaction fracture he suffered during the preseason.
Tretter can be activated to the roster after the Packers travel to New Orleans in Week 8, but is eligible to start practicing again next week. After spending the entire offseason preparing for the starting role, it's not certain he'll return to it.
As Packers coach Mike McCarthy outlined Friday morning, Linsley has earned the confidence of the coaching staff. He hasn't been perfect, but exceeded rookie expectations at a critical position in the no-huddle offense.
"Mentally, he's very sharp, very detailed, played in a big-time program, so he had a lot of things going for him," McCarthy said. "And I will say this: If things keep going the way they're going, I think we'll look back on this start as probably one of the most impressive situations that a young player has stepped up and performed in my time here – and we've had a lot of guys step up."
Linsley's quick maturation actually has made the Packers deep at a position that originally faced some uncertainty following Evan Dietrich-Smith's departure for Tampa Bay in free agency.
The rookie has allowed six pressures this season, but was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 10th-best center through the first five weeks. Meanwhile, Dietrich-Smith has been off to a slow start in 31st with one sack allowed, one hit and five pressures.
Linsley still has two games he'd like to have back - the 19-7 loss to Detroit and the 38-17 win over Chicago two weeks ago.
The one play Linsley prefers not to talk about happened in the third quarter against the Bears when his holding penalty negated a brilliant touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers, who shed a rusher and heaved a circus 34-yard touchdown pass into Davante Adams' waiting arms.
"I try to not bring it up," Linsley joked in the locker room Friday. "Maybe it'll just go away. Everybody will forget about it."
Linsley made up for it, though. He leaned back on those memories during Thursday's 42-10 win over Minnesota when nose tackle Linval Joseph was charging through his grasp. He might have drawn another flag if he held held for another moment, but instead let go as Joseph fell harmlessly to the turf.
Less than a second later, Rodgers sailed a 66-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson.
Linsley has started to develop chemistry with his quarterback, and neighboring guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Although Lang corrected him on one thing during walk-throughs Friday, he's gradually been assuming more responsibility.
"I think from a confidence standpoint in Corey, no one ever wavered because of what you were able to see him do every day in training camp," McCarthy said. "He's one of those guys as a rookie that came in here and you knew right away he belonged. First day of pads, it was like [snaps], 'Hey man, this guy, he's a powerful young man. So he fit right in. That's why I was never worried about him."
A two-year starter at Ohio State, Linsley says he's only focused on the task at hand. There's still three more games before the Packers have to make a decision.
His job is continue to earn Rodgers' respect. Coming into the league, Linsley always knew he belonged. It's just that his opportunity to show it came a little earlier than expected.
"It's not necessarily a surprise for me," Linsley said. "I knew what my talents were, I knew what my strengths were, and I didn't know if it was going to be good enough because I hadn't played in an NFL game. You just constantly prove to yourself that you can do it. It's not a matter of surprise, it's just proving it to yourself."
Tretter (6-4, 307), who missed all of his rookie season with a broken ankle, offers plenty of versatility. He was Cornell's starting left tackle for two years before moving inside with the Packers, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft.
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