TAMPA — He knows what it's like to be the offensive lineman nobody heard of, the one everybody counted out. From a small school with big dreams and little chance of playing in the NFL. Undrafted. Released. He has had his head pushed into the ground. Nobody took notice until he literally was stomped on in a game with the world watching.
So when Bucs center Evan Dietrich-Smith hears the angst and anger about the performance of some of his teammates on the offensive line in the preseason loss Friday at Jacksonville, he shrugs. He also thinks everybody needs to calm down.
"I've been the guy that nobody really knew about," Dietrich-Smith said. "At all. Period. To where I've taken advantage of my opportunities to where I'm here and I want to shed that light on other guys. It's one of those things, it doesn't matter where you come from in the NFL, if you can play football, they will put you on the field and you have to kind of take it from there. You have to take advantage of that opportunity, but they're going to give it to you at some point in time."
That's the message Dietrich-Smith, one of the team's biggest leaders, according to coach Lovie Smith, is imparting on his line-mates this week.
He played only 22 snaps with the starting offense in the 16-10 loss. "I played okay," he said. By comparison, he was great. In four possessions, quarterback Josh McCown was sacked once, fumbled twice (losing one), flushed from the pocket a pair of times and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Guards Jamon Meredith, Oniel Cousins and tackle Demar Dotson also committed penalties.
The result has been more line dancing for the Bucs. This week, they replaced Meredith at right guard with Jace Daniels, an undrafted free agent from Northern Michigan who spent last season on the team's practice squad.
Dietrich-Smith, 28, provided some perspective, calling the criticism of the offensive line "knee-jerk reaction stuff."
"It's fun for you guys (in the media). I know that," he said. "You guys get plenty of questions asked. But for us, you understand things are going to happen. … It's one of 20 games. It's a long road."
Consider the path to the NFL Dietrich-Smith has taken, the one he shares in the locker room.
Undrafted out of Idaho State in 2009, he was cut before the start of the 2010 season. He was signed by the Seahawks but lasted only four weeks before he was released again, with a daughter on the way. The Packers re-signed him on New Year's Day when Marshall Newhouse was placed on injured reserve.
Dietrich-Smith's next opportunity didn't come until Week 12 of 2011 when Josh Sitton was injured and he entered the game at right guard. In his first significant game, he became a household image when he got embroiled in a confrontation with Ndamukong Suh following a play against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
"As a young guy, it's real tough because it seems like it's you against the world and you're trying to fight and all this stuff," Dietrich-Smith said. "You make the team and you try to figure it out from there. I try to give guys advice, like, 'Listen, it's football. Everybody is really good up here, and you've got to play up to those expectations.' "
Dietrich-Smith did that and then some. Last season, the Packers decided to go with Colts free agent center Jeff Saturday at center. But Saturday was replaced by Dietrich-Smith for the final two regular-season and both playoff games. In March, he signed a four-year, $14.25 million contract with the Bucs. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 1 center for pass blocking.
So like Daniels, Dietrich-Smith knows how things can turn in a hurry, and he likes what he has seen. "He's doing some good things," he said. "He's going out there; he's a mauler. He's putting his body on a guy. Everyone has got some things to work on, myself included. But right now they're giving him a shot, and I think he's taking advantage of his opportunity and run with it."
Dietrich-Smith has a point. Last year, 37 percent of the undrafted free agents signed found jobs on an NFL roster or practice squad.
He warns not to draw any conclusions from the first preseason game. "We're really kind of showing you guys, on a percentage scale, about 5 percent of what we can really do," Dietrich-Smith said. "Real base, vanilla stuff.
"We weren't being super complicated, we weren't out there trying to trick anybody right off the bat … by the third game, what you see is going to be a pretty good gauge of probably what you're going to get during the season.
By virtue of his position, Dietrich-Smith is a leader on the offensive line. By his struggle, he is a player who commands respect. "I just want to help guys because I know how it is and how tough it is to play in this game," he said. "I want to be successful for a long time but I also want to help guys step up and get the same feeling I have."