This article was originally published on Apr. 1.
The similarities are almost errie.
In 2012, Greg Van Roten was signed by the Green Bay Packers out of the Ivy League, a 6-3, 303 lb. offensive lineman out of Penn.
Fast forward to 2013, and the next Ivy Leaguer to join the ranks of the NFL looks to become J.C. Tretter, a 6-4, 307 lb. offensive lineman from Cornell.
“There’s plenty of Ivy Leaguers out there that have been producing at the next level,” said Tretter at the NFL Combine. “It’s something that it’s not crazy to think about.”
When the Packers signed Van Roten as an undrafted free agent, they got a player who started his 30 final games in college at left tackle. But his 6-3 frame just didn’t translate well to tackle in the NFL.
After being elevated from the practice squad to the 53-man roster at midseason, Van Roten took a handful of snaps as an extra blocking tight end, but his future lies on the interior of the offensive line with the Packers going so far as to converting him into a center.
The same thing appears to be happening to Tretter who spent his first two season at Cornell as a tight end but spent his last two as a left tackle. Standing just fractions short of 6-4, however, he also figures to make a position switch at the pro level.
“I guess what people are seeing is, most of them see me as an interior lineman with my height and my arm length, which is all I’ve been working on now,” said Tretter. “I’ve got the tackle down from my two seasons playing, now I’m working on guard and center.”
Working in favor for both Tretter and Van Roten is their high-profile educational background, something that seems to translate well to offensive linemen in general and centers specifically in the NFL.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, recently retired Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk––a Harvard graduate––expressed his conviction to Cheesehead TV that understanding the Xs and Os of the game are even more important than the physical aspect for manning the pivot position.
“I think to be a center, I think the most important thing is you have to like to study,” said Birk. “You have to enjoy the game and the strategies and the nuances, because it’s my responsibility as the center as far as the game plan goes from week to week, and making calls and getting everybody lined up and going in the right direction. You have to be willing to study the playbook all the time.”
In addition to calling out blocking assignments, being able to direct a no-huddle offense is also part of the job description, and having an Ivy League education like Birk’s certainly doesn’t hurt. But at the same time, going to a university known more for its academics is a two-way street, according to Tretter.
“I think there’s a positive and a negative stigma,” said Tretter. “You have the regular small-school stigma, and then you have the intelligence stigma, which isn’t a bad one. The smarter you are in this game, the better you understand, the better you’re going to be able to play. So really, I don’t let it affect me. You do what you can.”
Tretter performed well enough at Cornell to be invited to the Senior Bowl in January, the premiere all-star game in college football. Unfortunately, however, he was never able to participate.
One day before he was set to fly out to Mobile, Ala. Tretter broke his nose at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. during a pass protection drill while training for the NFL Draft.
He had surgery immediately, and he doesn’t expect it to cause any long-term problems, but Tretter was disappointed that he wasn’t able to take advantage of an opportunity like a Senior Bowl invite that doesn’t come along very often for non-FBS players. Outside of interviewing with NFL teams in Mobile, he wasn’t able to impress anyone with his on-field acumen.
Fortunately for Tretter, he’s got versatility on his side. The best athletes on the offensive line frequently play left tackle, protecting the quarterback’s blind side.
The Packers, for example, have made a habit of taking college left tackles and finding out where they fit in the NFL after they arrive in Green Bay. Whether they have to flip to right tackle or slide inside to guard or center, the Packers aren’t afraid of the development it takes to make them comfortable.
Tretter would appear to have that adaptability the Packers like in their offensive lineman.
“How I’ve gone into it is wanting to be as versatile as possible,” said Tretter. “When you get to the next level, you need to do whatever the team can ask of you. So I want to be able to play all five positions extremely well.”
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email email@example.com.