"I ran a mountain earlier today," he told Packer Report after a trip to the ski hills at Waterville Valley Resort in New Hampshire. "I was on the smaller mountains, so if you've ever been skiing, it's like a bunny hill. It's not small. I backpedal up it — or try to as much as I can because you get tired. I do that a couple times, run it a couple times."
"I should probably clarify that," he added. "I would love to be able to run the wrong thing. It's like 40 minutes to the top. I'm not there yet. I will be by the end of the season but I wasn't cleared that long ago, so it's still pretty difficult. It's unbelievable. Even when you're going slow, you're still dying, your legs are still burning, it's still tough to catch your breath."
Smith started 40 games for the Wildcats and is the only player in school history to start in three bowl games. In five seasons — he played three games in 2007 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury — he picked off seven passes.
A source said the Packers have shown plenty of interest in Smith. He might not be drafted but he'll embark on his NFL career feeling confident about his chances. That's because the Smith that played all of those games at Northwestern won't be the Smith that shows up on an NFL practice field next month.
After missing a couple games during his senior season with a broken thumb, Smith had offseason surgery done on his hip labrum. He said he had bone spurs since he was about 10, and they slowly took away his ability to play as fast physically as he was mentally.
The bone was shaved down, and while he wasn't able to work out for scouts, he feels better than ever. He'll be ready to go once minicamps start.
"I gained 25 degrees range of motion in my hips," Smith said. "I'm faster. I'm more explosive. I can jump higher. Everything that I did (at Northwestern), that's a thing of the past. To look back and say, ‘Wow, I really wasn't healthy,' your mind controls a lot. How you deal with pain, how you play, playing while knowing that you're not as good as you could have been ... that's not who I am athletically. I feel better coming in and out of cuts. It's a rejuvenation of my career."
Smith had no interceptions, 40 tackles, two passes defensed and averaged 6.6 yards on punt returns as a senior. That on the heels of two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), 82 tackles, eight passes defensed and a 7.9-yard average on punt returns in 2008.
He offset his decreased physical ability as much as he could by stressing the mental side. That meant film work and leaning on two dozen quarterback camps before his junior and senior years of high school.
"There were plays that I wanted to make but I just physically couldn't because of the pain that I was in," he said. "To go against (Minnesota's) Eric Decker the whole game, knowing that I'm 75 percent, it's tough. I've got to be man-to-man on him and know that my fastest isn't as good as his fastest but still be able to cover him and get the job done. The mental edge and knowing to slow the game down and see the route progression and study film and just know the game is so important."
Smith's dad played at Miami (Fla.), an older brother played at Division II Bentley College and a younger brother plays at Holy Cross. His girlfriend, Hilary Bowen, played for the Northwestern lacrosse juggernaut that has won five straight national titles. Playing on a torn ACL, she scored five goals on five shots in the Wildcats' 21-7 romp against North Carolina in the title game.
Reaching the NFL would top them all.
"No words describe it," he said of the prospect of joining a team this week. "I love playing — I love playing. It's what I want to do. I don't care if I was getting paid, I want to play and I want to win. I'm healthier and I can do more now and be more of an asset to a team. I'm really excited for the opportunity and I'm going to work as hard as I can to seize the opportunity."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.