A.J. Hawk could find himself in a battle for a starting spot with the Packers defense in 2012. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Packers Training Camp Battles: Hawk vs. Smith

Will A.J. Hawk win the starting inside linebacking position this season? Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Since the Packers moved to a 3-4 defensive philosophy, their defense has been about as consistent as the lineup for the Monday Night Football broadcasters.

In 2008, they were twentieth in yards given up per game. In 2009, they jumped to 2nd, in 2010, they were 5th and in 2011 all way down to last.

While some might point to the presence, or lack thereof of a player like Cullen Jenkins (he played in only four games in 2008 and, of course we know by the unsullied jersey of Eli Manning last January, zero games for the Pack in 2012), the play of their linebackers hasn’t been a stellar example of consistency.

In fact, no position on the Packers defense has had to endure as many rotating starters since 2008 as the linebacking corps. For long periods of time, the following have been completely out or at the very least severely encumbered by injury: Matthews (hamstring, shin), Hawk, Barnett, Walden, Zombo, Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar.

Will D.J. Smith get more playing time or even a starting role this season? Raymond T. Rivard photograph

So it should come as no surprise when we, Packers fans to the enth degree, search for spectacular stability. We’ve had it at almost every other position for years, Rodgers, Jennings, Bulaga, Woodson, and until last year, Collins and to some extent Raji. With a breakout performance by Desmond Bishop last year, we know that spectacular play from the inside linebacking position is possible. That could be what’s suddenly driving speculation that Hawk is in a training camp battle to save his starting position (and therein his roster spot).

Since they lost to the Cardinals back in the 2009-10 playoffs, when it became painfully clear that Hawk just did not possess the speed necessary to track down running backs on the sideline, I’ve never been a big fan of the Ohio State product. But Hawk had a productive year in 2010 and the Packers, on a Super Bowl high, invested a multi-year contract in the linebacker and let Nick Barnett go.

Last season, Hawk was consistently blamed for not making enough big plays. When he did have to sit because of injury, Packer fans were treated to some excellent playmaking by his understudy, a rookie, D.J. Smith. He’s 5-11, 239 pounds, and came out of a small school, Appalachian State.

During his unlimited action last year, he had 40-plus tackles and an interception. It will be very interesting to see if Smith gets more snaps than usual during the preseason, especially if it is with the first team. The Packers will likely say it is to give Hawk a rest, but many will view this as a clue that Hawk has a fight on his hands, which is as good a motivator as there is for someone who has already inked his post rookie payday contract.

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Tags: A J Hawk Aaron Rodgers Arizona Cardinals B.J. Raji Brad Jones Brandon Chillar Bryan Bulaga Charles Woodson Clay Matthews Cullen Jenkins D.J. Smith Desmond Bishop Eli Manning Erik Walden Frank Zombo Green Bay Packers Greg Jennings Monday Night Football Nick Barnett Nick Collins Super Bowl

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