Draft Exclusive: Chasing a Tackle

After interviewing this left tackle at the NFLPA all-star game and the Scouting Combine, the Packers worked him out recently on campus. There might not be an offensive lineman with more upside in this entire draft, as he explains in our exclusive interview.

There are better left tackle prospects in the NFL Draft than East Carolina's Willie Smith.

There might not, however, be one with more upside.

Smith was one of the country's better defensive line prospects when he arrived at East Carolina out of North Johnston High School in Kenly, N.C. However, with stalwarts C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross — both rookies with the Packers in 2010 — starring on the Pirates' defensive line, Smith decided to move to tight end for his redshirt sophomore season of 2008. He failed to win the starting job at tight end but he learned something about himself that changed his football fortunes.

"At tight end sometimes, you've got to kick-slide, you've got to pass block," Smith told Packer Report on Saturday. "I found out that I was naturally good at kick-sliding."

So, at midseason, Smith asked to move to offensive tackle, and he wound up winning all-conference accolades as a junior and senior while anchoring East Carolina's prolific offense.

The Packers clearly have taken notice. Green Bay drafts an offensive lineman or two every year — almost all of them are collegiate left tackles. While the Packers like last year's fifth-round pick, Marshall Newhouse, Smith's incredible upside might be hard to resist. Unlike almost every tackle beyond the first-round prospects in this draft, Smith has a future at left tackle in the NFL.

In fact, Smith said he interviewed with the Packers at the NFLPA Game and the Scouting Combine, and then worked out for the team on campus on March 24.

"When you really look at it, I've got two years of game experience (at left tackle)," he said. "If you look at some of the other guys who are coming out in this draft at tackle, they played it in high school and then they came to college and played it in college. They've got at least eight years of experience. You look at me, I've got two years, and look how good I am in two years. Imagine if I had three, four more years and how good I could be."

It's an interesting question. Certainly, Smith has all the physical tools. At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, he's got the desired size. His 34.5-inch arms are plenty long enough to play left tackle, and his 11.25-inch hands were the largest of any tackle at the Combine.

He's incredibly intelligent, which is no small matter at his position. He needed just three-and-a-half years to earn his degree in business management and started work on a second degree in family community services.

Plus, as his ability to play tight end would suggest, Smith has tremendous athleticism for the position.

"I'd say my strength is my ability to move my feet," he said. "I'm very athletic and I'm strong, so you don't see too many guys run by me, know what I'm saying?"

Smith said he likes to watch Miami's Jake Long — calling the Dolphins' standout left tackle a "monster" — and said his daily battles as a junior with Wilson helped prepare him for this moment. Might the next moment be a reunion with Wilson?

"It's really an honor to be blessed enough to be able to enter this part of my life," Smith said. "I look at parts of my life as a chapter. The college chapter's over. Now, I'm just opening up this chapter of going to the NFL. I'm really looking to play there for a long, long time and do some special things."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.

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