Derek Smith: 'I have to earn it every day'

In his 10th NFL season, Derek Smith is one of the veteran leaders around whom the 49ers' young defense revolves. But the $16 million deal Smith signed in March doesn't mean he still doesn't have to prove himself on every play. Here, Smith discusses the team's defense, the letdown of last week's preseason loss at Oakland and the you're-only-as-good-as-your-last-play mentality he brings to the team.

Q: Were you as disappointed in Sunday's performance against the Raiders as much as coach Nolan sounds like he was?
Smith:
Yeah, I was really disappointed. That was a chance for us to take a step forward from the previous week and we didn't. We took a step back. So we just have to go out this week and keep on trying to get better as a team and get better every day. What we need to do is go and have a good road game, because we haven't been so strong on the road the last couple of years. So this will be a good experience for us as a team to kind of go out and get ready for a road game and go on the road and play a game.

Q: After playing so well in the preseason opener, was the team a little flat against Oakland because of things that happened off the field during the week, the trades and such?
Smith:
No. I think there's just … you have ups and downs and for some reason or another we kind of just came out emotionally flat. The reason why we didn't do what we should have done is because we didn't execute. Whether we were flat or not is not an excuse. We simply didn't execute on defense. We had a chance to get off on third down, we had a chance at a fumble, we had a chance at an interception - three different things on that very first drive to change the complexion of that game. So it all comes to execution. You can't blame anything on whether you're emotionally tired or whatever. It all comes down to execution. You have to execute. We did not execute. And that's something we have to do better as a team - come out and execute all the time. We don't have that luxury of hitting one week and missing the other week. We've got to be on f we want to be competitive this year.

Q: Now that you're tinkering with personnel on defense this week, is this still a 3-4 defense even when you have four men down along the line?
Smith:
It's always been four men down before, too. They're doing the same thing whether their hand's in the ground or it's up. They have the same responsibilities.

Q: What's the biggest adjustment for you when you do go to a 4-3 set?
Smith:
Same gap control, really. That's the way it ends up playing out. Honestly, the scheme, the way the guys line up and stuff, it's exactly the same in our defenses.

Q: Now that you guys are hurting at outside linebacker right now … didn't you fill in for Julian Peterson on the outside a while back?
Smith:
That was about two, three years ago. I'm not an outside backer. I would contest (another move there). You have to embrace your strengths. I'm not an outside guy. I see things a lot better behind the ball.

Q: You didn't feel comfortable when you did it a couple of years ago?
Smith:
Heck no. Not my job. You can't get in as much of the action when you pick yourself off the other half of the field pretty much.

Q: How will you handle the injuries that have the same outside linebacker position?
Smith:
You always have to deal with injuries and I guess that's how (coaches are) dealing with it right now. Moving Melvin (Oliver) there, he's really still playing the SAM linebacker its just that he's down, playing with his hand on the ground. It's the same defense.

Q: When you change key defensive personnel, like you did this year with the loss of Peterson and Andre Carter, how long does it take for this defense to get as good or better than it was last year?
Smith:
It's going to happen. Our guys that we've got are going to do a good job. We're going to better in the end if we can stay healthy.

Q: How's Manny Lawson been doing on the outside?
Smith:
He's doing good. He's a smart kid. He picks the system up pretty fast. He's just got to get better in his game and get experience and stuff like that. So it's good to get him out there in preseason games to try and get a feel for the speed of the game. He's doing good.

Q: Do you change the way you go about your business now knowing that people on this team are looking up to you?
Smith:
I still try to do what I do in practice, just trying to get my assignments right. I do try and go a step further if I see things are not going as well as they should or something, I try to speak up and try and get things going. If the tempo's not there, then it's my job and some of the other leaders on this defense's job to speak up and say that it's not right and get things going in the right direction.

Q: Do you actually feel guys looking up to you?
Smith:
I think so. I don't know about everyone. But I think for some of the guys it's up.

Q: Who did you look up to when you came into the league with Washington?
Smith:
Marvcus Patton and Ken Harvey.

Q: Is your leadership style anything like them?
Smith:
They were kind of the same. They weren't real rah-rah type guys, but they were guys who were professionals and tried to be exact in everything they did and tried to lead by example. But if things weren't going right, they stepped up. They kind of taught me a little bit.

Q: Is it a different feel and situation for you now that you're a mainstay on this team and one of the core players on defense?
Smith:
I think I've always been a core player on this team. I'd like to feel like I'm going to be one of the guys that can help contribute to this defense quite a bit this year.

Q: Are you glad to have longevity like you've had with 49ers, so that you can kind of get identified with one place?
Smith:
There's something to that. It's nice for your family and stuff to be able to be familiar with an area and be comfortable. But I've had three different head coaches and this is my sixth year. So as far as staff goes, you're still in the same environment, but you're bringing in a whole new attitude every time, you know. As far as Nolan coming in, and me being able to stay here with Nolan, I'm happy about that, because I think he's doing the right things and I think we're moving in the right direction.

Q: After signing a three-year, $14 million deal in the offseason, do you feel more entrenched on this team and in this organization than you did last year?
Smith:
You have to prove yourself all the time. So whether you sign a contract or not, I still have to go out there and first off, perform. It doesn't really matter about the contract. I feel like I'm one of the guys that they want the team designed around. I would say more like I have the character and the type of work ethic and those types of things that they want. Those are the type of guys that they want to get in here.

Q: So even now, you never really allow yourself to get too comfortable out there?
Smith:
You're only as good as your last play. So you have to go out there and you've got to earn it every day. There's no handouts. There's no scholarships, you know what I'm saying? It's not like I signed a three-year scholarship. I signed a contract, but I mean, you can change your mind real quick on a guy. So you really can't feel entrenched. Never. That's not part of the deal in the NFL. It's a business, and they're trying to do what they have to do and we as players are trying to do what we have to do. And hopefully, they ended up on the same page.

Q: So it's not like you ever get to the point where you feel like you deserve it?
Smith:
No, I feel like I deserve it. But I feel like I have to earn it every day. Sure. It doesn't matter what you did last year. It matters what you do today. I got to go out there and do it again this year and make them feel like they got a good deal.


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