Smith Plays With 'Chip on Shoulder'

Sixth-round pick D.J. Smith was a tackling machine who jumped off the film when inside linebackers coach Winston Moss scouted him before the draft. He's undersized, but then again, so was another Appalachian State linebacker who made it to three Pro Bowls.

When Green Bay Packers inside linebackers coach Winston Moss was doing his scouting work before the draft, he couldn't help but notice an undersized, small-school linebacker making one tackle after another.

"When I studied him in preparation for the draft, that was the thing that stood out the most," Moss said of Appalachian State's D.J. Smith, who wound up being the Packers' sixth-round pick in April. "He had tremendous run instincts and pursuit to get to the football. He was just relentless in pursuit. I knew that was going to be something that we would be able to hang our hat on. He hasn't done anything that has dispelled that."

Smith, who replaced starter Desmond Bishop late in the fourth quarter of last week's game against Detroit and finished with five tackles, will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the New York Giants. Not only is Bishop out, but so is fellow starter and defensive signal-caller A.J. Hawk. That means Smith will be running the show on defense and won't have a veteran to lean on.

"It was a matter of a year or two ago we were probably in this situation with Desmond Bishop, where Desmond Bishop hadn't really played a lot," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We like the way that D.J. stepped in and performed last week. We would anticipate him going in and doing the same kind of job this week."

There are some similarities between Bishop and Smith. While Cal is a much bigger fish in the college football pond than Appalachian State, both were sixth-round draft picks. Both play more physically than their stature would suggest – Smith is 5-foot-11 and 239 pounds; Bishop is 3 inches taller but just 238.

And both got their chance to play significant snaps because of injuries. Bishop labored as a special-teams standout for three-plus seasons until finally getting his chance on defense when Nick Barnett sustained a season-ending wrist injury in Week 4 of last season. Bishop, of course, played so well that he earned a contract extension and the Packers made no effort to retain Barnett in free agency.

"He's a good player. Smart. That's the main thing that sticks out," Bishop said. "When you first come in this defense, there's so much to grasp and he grasped it so quick. The first thing that comes out is he's just such a smart player. His natural ability speaks for itself or he wouldn't be here."

Smith was a tackling machine at Appalachian State. His college coach, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Dale Jones, has no doubts that the Packers got a quality player with the 186th overall pick. He recalls Smith, as a true freshman on the reigning national champions, unseating veteran starter Cam Speer at midseason.

"If he was 2 inches taller and a tenth of a second faster, he could have been a first-rounder," Jones told Packer Report after the draft. "He's just a quality football player and quality man."

Since the NCAA changed the name of Division I-AA to Football Championship Subdivision in 2000, only one player recorded more than Smith's 525 career tackles (Illinois State's Boomer Grigsby finished with 550).

"He's one of the hardest kids to block," Jones said. "Offensive linemen have a problem getting leverage on him. He's just got a gift to always be in the right position. In his four years, nobody could ever run a screen. He knew it and the offensive linemen couldn't get a hat on him."

For years, Smith has been told that he couldn't do this or couldn't do that. He wasn't big enough to land at a BCS school, and he wasn't big enough or athletic enough (a broad jump of 8-foot-8 was the shortest at the Combine among linebackers) to be a highly touted draft prospect.

"I play with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "Just being the size that I am and coming from the school that I came from, you've got to have a little bit (of a chip)."

Then again, former Appalachian State linebacker Dexter Coakley was only 5-foot-10. A third-round draft pick by Dallas, he was selected to three Pro Bowls in his 10 seasons.

Smith never met Coakley but heard plenty about him over the years.

"People made little remarks here and there, ‘You play like him, you look like him,' body size and things like that," Smith said. "I took that and put another thing on my shoulders and kept it in the back of my mind. I had to fill some big shoes, so that's the approach I took."

Smith certainly has big shoes to fill this week. Bishop was on pace to finish with 173 tackles, which would have ranked third in franchise history. Moreover, Bishop and Clay Matthews are tied for the team lead in sacks with five, and Bishop has been used as the primary defender against standout tight ends throughout the season.

Smith's first play last week, however, served notice that he wasn't about to back down from the challenge. On the final play of the first quarter, the Lions ran the ball right at Smith, who shed the blocker at the point of attack and dropped Maurice Morris for no gain.

"Coming in right away and doing it though, yeah, it helps," Smith said. "It gives you a little bit of a confidence boost. It gets your feet wet and the nerves get out when you get that first tackle."

Expect the Giants to challenge Smith and the other injury replacement, Robert Francois, again and again with running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs as well as tight end Jake Ballard on Sunday.

"I always remind those guys, especially the new guys that come in, when you're put in that type of situation, an offensive coordinator is going to take a look at that and he's going to have that look on his face like, ‘Let's try to take advantage of the young guy,'" Moss said. "Right from the start, he had to be ready and he answered. For the rest of the game, he was in good shape."

Will he be ready for Sunday, when the fate of the Packers' undefeated season might rest squarely on the shoulders of an undersized rookie?

"Should be," Moss said. "Let's see what happens."


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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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