Smolko applies simple logic to his chances

Those paying attention to Penn State football remember the tight end making two of the biggest plays last season. He saved the season early on and then just about won the Orange Bowl. He's now with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent and makes the case that this is just another fourth-and-long he can convert.

"I think my chances look good here," said Isaac Smolko, the 6-5, 257-pound rookie tight end.

"They only have two guys on the roster and another guy who was drafted in front of me. When training camp rolls around they don't put anybody ahead of anybody, except maybe the two guys already on the roster. But between us three rookies, it's up for grabs. I don't think anybody's got any better of a shot."

There's another reason why Smolko believes he can make the Pittsburgh Steelers this season: He played ahead of Matt Kranchick at Penn State, and Kranchick, of course, made the Steelers coming out of the last two training camps.

"Yeah, that makes me feel better," Smolko said. "I'll shoot myself if I don't make it."

Kranchick, now with Tampa Bay, isn't much of a blocker and that's where Smolko held a clear advantage at Penn State. But Smolko won't discount his own playmaking ability. He made two big plays last season, each time pulling Penn State out of a dire situation.

The first big play came against Northwestern. Penn State was 4-0 at the time but trailed 29-27 with 1:33 remaining. The Nittany Lions faced a fourth-and-15 from their own 15 when Smolko reeled in a 20-yard pass. A few plays later, Derrick Williams caught a 36-yard touchdown pass to continue Penn State's dream season. After the game, quarterback Michael Robinson pointed to Smolko and said "he has the most reliable hands on the team."

Those hands came through again in the Orange Bowl. On the last drive of regulation, with the score tied against Florida State, Smolko converted a third-and-14 for Penn State with a 20-yard catch. The drive continued to the Florida State 12-yard line, from where Penn State's kicker missed a 29-yard field goal attempt. Three overtimes later, the freshman kicker converted another 29-yard attempt for the Penn State win.

"I told my kicker I'd have killed him if we would've lost," Smolko said. "But it turned out alright because we ended up winning and it prolonged my college career a little longer."

Smolko was a coveted recruit out of Springfield High near Youngstown, Ohio. His final four college choices were Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State. He chose Penn State because the surrounding farm country in State College reminded him of his hometown of Petersburg.

Smolko was a Steelers-hating Cleveland Browns fan growing up in Ohio, but survived the abyss by marrying up.

"My in-laws are big Steelers fans," he said. "Most of my wife's family loves the Steelers."

At Penn State, Smolko lettered as a redshirt sophomore and became the starter – and long-snapper – his junior and senior seasons. He caught a career-high 21 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in 2004. Last season he caught 13 passes for 192 yards. He graduated last spring with a degree in Kinesiology. He'll go into personal training if things don't work out for him with the Steelers. But, if Kranchick – Penn State's third-down tight end in 2003 – could make it, Smolko surely can.

"Matt's a great guy," Smolko said. "It's just that in college he wasn't a great blocker. He got here and did well. He didn't do bad blocking at all, a lot better than I thought he would.

"Blocking is probably my strength, but I feel I run pretty well. I can catch. I've always considered myself a receiving tight end. I went to Penn State and had to do a lot of blocking, so I think I got a lot better at it."

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