Smith was recruited to play quarterback for the Cardinals. They switched him to strong safety before deciding to insert him into the lineup as a strong-side outside linebacker. As his frame continued to fill out, the once 220-pounder, now measuring in at 255, was shifted to weak-side defensive end as a sophomore.
With the team craving for production coming off the edge, Smith was again on the move as a junior, taking over "field" (rush) end chores in 2012. It was a bit of an adjustment for the youngster, but after a "pedestrian-like" 2012 campaign, he returned with a vengeance as a senior. The result was Smith producing 14.5 sacks, leading the nation with an average of 1.12 per game, as his season total is fourth-best in school annals.
Smith also showed much better field awareness, sifting through the crowd to deliver 18.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage last season, which led the American Athletic Conference, ranked 14th nationally and placed fifth on the Louisville annual record chart. The two-year full-time starter would close out his career as the school's sixth-ranked player with 32.5 stops-for-loss, ranking seventh with 24.0 sacks.
While his senior season's performance stood out and elevated his draft stock, Smith put on two more impressive shows for team decision makers. At the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, he recorded the fifth-best 40-yard dash (4.68) for all defensive linemen at the event. He also displayed his leaping ability, recording a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10'01" broad jump. Even though most of the down linemen outweighed him, Smith stepped into the weight room and lifted the 225-pound bar 23 times in the bench press drill.
"I thought I did everything I needed to do," Smith said. "I thought me doing all of the defensive line stuff was great and me doing all of the linebacker stuff was great. Whatever teams wants at that time of the draft, I don't mind. If I go as a defensive end that's great, or a linebacker that's fine."
"There's a lot to like there," one scout said, noting he figures Smith a late second-round pick. Smith said he feels like since the Combine that he has "really improved" on his skills, including the linebacker position. "At the combine, I think I only did three linebacker drills and so the scouts didn't really get to see me open my hips," he said. "I think I showed them today that I can do it."
"I always tell teams that I first bring a winning attitude and a winning attitude in the locker room," he said. "I am going to be someone you can count on. I want to be one of those guys who will become a Pro Bowler, I want to be one of those players who becomes a legend."
Body StructureSmith has a compact frame with very good overall muscle definition, along with the long arms needed to maintain separation from blockers working in tight areas. He has good lower-body thickness which allows him to hold his ground firmly at the point of attack vs. the lead blockers. He has an ideal frame you look for in a strong-side linebacker or rush end, but will need to add more bulk if a team plans to play him as a down lineman at the next level. He can carry another 10 pounds of bulk without the additional weight impacting his impressive timed speed. He has a tall, linear frame with good overall muscle tone, a tight abdomen (six-pack), and good thickness in his thighs and calves.
Athletic AbilityThe first thing that stands out on Smith is his exceptional quickness coming off the snap. He has above-average body control, athleticism, strength and change-of-direction agility to surprise a lethargic offensive tackle and an array of moves (rip and spin moves are perhaps the best in this draft class) to play off a block and penetrate the backfield, evident by his high amount of tackles for loss, despite giving up considerable bulk to his blocking assignment. With that explosive initial step, it looks as if the blocker is standing still as he bursts off the line. He is agile and flexible enough to be considered for the strong-side linebacker position in a 3-4 alignment. You can see on film that he is a quick twitch athlete (see 2013 Florida International, South Florida, Connecticut and Rutgers games). He has that natural movement agility needed to jump and bend when attacking the pocket and has outstanding quickness and leverage closing on the quarter-back. He plays with a non-stop motor, but is not reckless in his pursuit, as he shows the plant/drive agility to change direction and close on the cut back lanes. He is the type of player who shows up every snap and plays with tough aggression. He is a disruptive force who needs to be accounted for on every play. He also displays excellent knee bend, hip flip and balance to stay up on his feet.
Football SenseSmith is a highly instinctive player, perhaps the best at breaking down blocking schemes and reacting to cutback lanes in this draft class. He has that natural feel and keen eyes, along with valid instincts to read block pressure and react in an instant when he locates the ball. He also shows good agility to plant for a sharp change-of-direction. He demonstrates good arm extension and anchor vs. the double team, knowing how to use his reach to keep blockers from attacking his legs or get into his chest. It is very easy for him to digest the playbook and he will not have any issues with the mental aspect of the game. Playing more on the move this season, he showed teams that he is versatile enough for them to stand him up and convert him to linebacker at the next level, but his awareness moving through trash make him just as effective with his hand down at the line of scrimmage as a rush end. He does all that is asked and is not a showboat — he just comes to play. He is a vocal leader and always plays at a high tempo. He is an outstanding worker on the field who has a true passion for the game. He is the type of player that brings out the best in his teammates, either by setting an example or pushing his mates to play better.
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CompetitivenessSmith plays with a nonstop motor, reminding me of David Pollack (ex-Bengal) before a neck injury ended his career. He plays and practices at 110 percent effort. He is tough and physical combating bigger foes in the trenches and you will always see him give total effort and play with great desire (see the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl performance vs. Miami). With that "fire in his belly," he would be an instant spark for a lethargic defense, as he would energize his teammates and refuse to take anything less than total effort from the 10 men that will line up on the field with him. Simply put, his motor is constantly running and he has impressive football toughness.
Explosion/PursuitSmith has had so much success as an edge rusher due to his outstanding explosion off the snap. He has great balance and movement skills, using his reach effectively to stave off blockers trying to attack his body. He is a quick twitch type with active hands and quick feet. He just has that exceptional ability to generate instant penetration (see 2013 Temple, Rutgers and Connecticut games). He has excellent closing speed and does a superb job of anticipating the play. His explosive first step lets him consistently beat tackles coming off the edge. He does a very good job of timing his jumps and uses his leg drive effectively to redirect.
Strength at PointSmith might give up considerable bulk vs. an offensive tackle, but can generate the lift and thrust coming out of the blocks with a low pad level, hitting the lineman with force on the rise to rock those blockers back up on their heels. He has more than enough raw power to hold his ground at the point of attack, along with the flexibility to sit in the crease and push back the lead blocker in attempts to clog the rush lanes (see 2013 Temple and Rutgers games). For a player of his size, he will surprise you with the consistency he displays splitting the double-team action. That is because of his good extension and anchor skills. When he sits in the crease, he will generally hold his ground at the point of attack. Smith understands leverage and is powerful at the point of attack. He has very strong and active hands. He shows very good outside arm-free strength and leverage and is rarely blown off the ball. He can get across face quickly and has the lower body strength and flexibility to sink his hips, drop his weight and gain leverage. It is his quickness that lets him beat most blocks. Even when he is not quick to shed, he can cross face fast.
Use of HandsSmith is quite active using his hands to fend off blockers trying to get under his pads. He has the long reach needed to maintain separation and shows the raw power to separate from blockers using strong rip and club moves. With his low center of gravity and ability to sink his weight, he does a very nice job of guarding his legs vs. the chop block and shows a fluid flow to the ball when in pursuit. He has very good hand strength and quick arms, playing with authority when he locks on. His fast-paced hand action consistently allows him to gain inside position.
Lateral Pursuit/EffortThis is one of his better assets and the reason most 3-4 defensive teams covet him as a strong-side linebacker, while 4-3 schemes see him as a nice fit as a rush end. He has great effort and fluid change-of-direction agility chasing down the quarterback and is relentless in his pursuit. Even when ridden away from the play, he will still combat that blocker rather than throttle down. You can see on film that his success as a pass rusher is the result of his ability to slip and avoid trash when working in-line, as he also demonstrates the flexibility needed to fight cut blocks. He chases down the quarterback regularly due to his strong concept for taking angles (14.5 sacks and 12 QB hurries in 2013), especially when getting into the backfield. His hip flip is evident by his ability to get an edge on the blocker. He stays on his feet and pursues well. He has a very active motor and is rarely taken off his feet. His change-of-direction agility and straight-ahead burst are very effective in letting him close in the short area. He takes good angles in pursuit and shows the foot speed to play outside the box.
Tackling AbilityYou would like to see Smith make more tackles (career-high 42 in 2013 and just 86 in 45 games that includes 31 starts), but when he does hit an opponent, it is rare to see that man bounce off those hits. He is an aggressive hitter who will square up and wrap, doing a nice job of bringing his hips. He is a better striker on the move than in the box, but he is able to bend, roll his hips and drive forward to make the physical tackle that will prevent the ball-carrier from falling forward for extra yards. In space, he knows how to use his reach to wrap up or drag down the runner. He will hit with good explosion when working in the short area and makes fluid body adjustments when working in space.
Run DefenseSmith might give up bulk in the trenches, but on the corners, he is quite effective at pinching the outside running game back inside. He might get covered up by the bigger offensive tackles trying to take an inside gap, but he will fight hard to not lose containment. With his good hand usage and extension at the point of attack, he is quick to shed when he keeps blockers from getting a piece of his jersey, thanks to his rip, club and swim moves. He is a physical hip roller when tackling in-line, but might have much more success standing up as a strong-side linebacker or rush end in the NFL than with his hand on the ground as a conventional down lineman. He does protect his legs well vs. double teams and low blocks, but is much more effective making tackles on the move than sitting in the gap, even though he displays the strength to stymie the lead blocker. He is functionally strong and plays with leverage at the point of attack. His sudden quickness off the snap allows him to disrupt the action in the backfield (see 2013 Temple, Rutgers and Florida International games).
Pass RushSmith might be the most explosive pass rusher that Louisville has developed since Elvis Dumervil was terrorizing backfields in 2005. He has that sudden burst of quickness heading up field and combines active hand usage with hip flip, pop and rip moves in his attempt to bend the corner. He might give up bulk, but with his upper-body strength, he's had good success in pressing the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle. He also possesses the flexibility and leverage to simply burst in the backfield and close on the pocket (see 2013 South Florida, Connecticut and Miami games). He has that "bag of tricks" that he uses to counter inside, along with an explosive spin move to pressure the quarterback. As a pass rusher, he can beat you with either his speed or power. Smith has very good body control and excellent hip snap. The thing I like is the way he can squeeze through the tiniest of creases to get into the backfield. He uses his arm-over moves with very good quickness and rips well. He keeps himself lean to gain leverage and he excels at pressuring the quarterback. He can turn the corner and shows good counter moves to come underneath and make the play. His lower body strength lets him push the pocket and he displays very good urgency to get to the quarterback.
Closing on the QuarterbackSmith displays good urgency and a strong feel for angling flushing the quarterback out of the pocket. He has that explosive burst into clean air that has made him a terror once he gets into the backfield. He can also deliver the "knock-out" blow, evident by the eleven fumbles he caused from his pocket pressure (see 2013 FIU, Rutgers, South Florida and Miami games). With his above-average speed, more often than not, he will have success chasing down the quarterback from the backside. He shows good acceleration out of his stance to blow past the offensive tackle. He's quicker than his timed speed when working off the edge and even better on stunts. His ability to chase and stalk the quarterback from the back side has resulted in him posting 12 pressures as a senior.
Instincts/RecognitionSmith is constantly looking for avenues to get into the backfield. He is alert to blocking schemes and keeps his head on a swivel to avoid cut blocks and double teams. He has no problems flattening and squeezing vs. down blocks and fights pressure vs. reach blocks. He has valid instincts reading blocks and keen eyes to locate the ball on the move. He shows the ability to suddenly plant and change direction. He is best when he reacts quickly, and he will not be fooled by fakes and play action. His flow to the ball comes with no hesitation.
Compares ToELVIS DUMERVIL, Baltimore: Smith is an excellent rush end, whose only deficiency is a lack of ideal bulk and height for a 4-3 down lineman. He is very productive and disruptive coming off the edge, using that explosive quickness of his to penetrate the backfield. He is a bit of an overachiever, but he is a smart player with natural instincts who always seems to be around the ball. He shows explosive acceleration and excellent instincts into the backfield and is very effective using his hands to disengage.
Smith is a functional run defender with the quickness and lateral agility to make plays on the move. When he gets too high in his stance, he can be tied up working in-line, but he is able to compensate, as he is able to get across the blocker's face quickly. He has a high motor and makes plays from sideline to sideline. He has a natural feel for the play and at the point of attack, has the lower leg power to hold firmly.
Using his hands, impressive flexibility and body control to get up the field and disrupt plays off the snap (32.5 tackles-for-loss during 31 starting assignments), Smith plays playing with natural leverage and strength. He does a very good job of redirecting down the line and has the speed to close when in pursuit.
Smith is a fierce pass rusher with a natural feel for the ball, demonstrating outstanding flexibility to get up field and disrupt the snap. Due to size limitations, you would expect him to only be effective coming off the edge, but he has more than enough strength to run over blockers in his quest to get to the quarterback.
His speed allows him to beat offensive tackles off the line and redirect. His relentless approach makes him a player that must be constantly accounted for. Even when he does not make the play, his pursuit is such that it probably affected the outcome of that play.
Smith's natural feel for the ball in the short area is likened to that of Dwight Freeney's, but he lacks the explosive sustained speed that the Charger showed during his prime in Indianapolis. Barring injuries, he should be an instant impact type at the NFL level, at least in pass rushing situations.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.