Replacement for Bishop has to step up

D.J. Smith will fill in at middle linebacker
Replacement for Bishop has to step up

Seven days earlier, Desmond Bishop stood in front of his locker while stepping into D.J. Smith’s shoes. Having worn them himself from 2007 until Nick Barnett broke his wrist, Bishop knew of which he spoke.

“He did really good. He was himself. Very smart, instinctive – definitely reminded me a lot of myself,” Bishop said with a laugh. The Green Bay Packers starting inside linebacker had just been cleared to practice in pads after spending the first week of camp on the non-football injury list with a calf injury he’d suffered while training on his own, and his return meant Smith was returning to the No. 2 defense – a place Bishop had spent most of his first three-plus NFL seasons behind Barnett and A.J. Hawk.

Thus, Bishop was uniquely qualified to give Smith some advice.

“I just tell him, ‘You’ve got to keep working and you’ll be able to get everything that you want. You just have to be a bit patient, but just keep getting better.'”

As it turned out, Smith’s wait lasted less than a week. Bishop suffered a potentially season-ending hamstring injury during the team’s preseason-opening loss at San Diego on Thursday – he’ll require surgery and is likely lost for the season, pending surgical confirmation of the damage – and now the Packers will turn to the second-year linebacker from Appalachian State to fill in for arguably the team’s best defensive player last season.

“When I was coming up playing ball, you don’t lose your job because of an injury. You have to beat a guy out. Whatever coach had me do, going back to 2s, I was perfectly fine with it,” Smith said. “Of course I feel crappy. You never want to see a teammate go down – a leader of the defense, good tackler, overall good guy – you don’t want to see that. But at the same time, you have to be prepared. It’s your job as a professional to be ready to play when your number is called.”

Last season, Smith was called upon on Thanksgiving, when Bishop pulled a calf muscle in the first quarter against the Detroit Lions. He registered seven tackles in that game, then played well in his first NFL start against the New York Giants the following week (nine tackles, plus a hit on Giants quarterback Eli Manning that contributed to Clay Matthews’ interception that he returned for a touchdown. He started the next week against the Oakland Raiders, intercepted a pass himself and tallied nine tackles again.

All that experience will come in handy now, as the undersized (5-foot-11 and 239 pounds) Smith is no longer under-qualified.

“I think that’s prepared me a little bit. The more reps you get, the more you’ll be ready to play. The more and more reps I get, the more I’ll be ready to go,” Smith said. “With the year in, I learned the game a little bit more, a little bit more time under my belt, a full offseason – I feel a little bit more comfortable.

“I know the defense. It’s just going to take more film study and get with the coaches a lot more and get ready to go on Sundays.”

That’s enough for coach Mike McCarthy, who is confident – despite acknowledging the gut-wrenching nature of Bishop’s loss – that Smith can handle the job.

“I would say D.J.’s ready. He was a very good role player for us last year, had an opportunity to start a couple games, was (the team’s defensive) player of the game two weeks in a row with those opportunities. He’s ready to go,” McCarthy said.

That’s not to say that Smith won’t have growing pains. He acknowledged that he missed a couple tackles against the Chargers, and that he didn’t stay with tight end Antonio Gates long enough on Gates’ 23-yard touchdown catch after Bishop went down

But with the work he got while Bishop was sidelined, and now all the first-team reps he’ll get going forward, Smith will have ample time to be ready for the Packers’ Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco with the hope that he’ll fill in for Bishop as effectively as Bishop did for Barnett in 2010, when he registered 121 tackles, three sacks, intercepted Brett Favre and returned the pick 32 yards for a touchdown and forced a pair of fumbles.

“You can’t replace him,” Smith said. “But you sure can just try to fill the void as much as possible and as best as possible.”