Former Hardaway standout Marcus Smith waits to hear name called in NFL draft

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comApril 26, 2014 

The dream has been with Marcus Smith for 17 years.

At 5 years old, he made a promise to himself: Somehow, someway, he was going to become an NFL player.

In less than two weeks, Smith's fantasy will likely become a reality, as the Hardaway alum will hear his name called out at the Radio City Music Hall during this year's NFL draft, which takes place from May 8-10 in New York City.

The only part of the dream that didn't line up is his position; Smith never envisioned making it to the pros as anything other than a quarterback.

"I played quarterback my whole life, so that's what I wanted to play in the future," he said in a phone interview earlier this week. "But things change and they always work out for the best. I give all the glory to God, because He brought me through this whole process."

It was a process that started less than a week into his career at Louisville.

Fresh off throwing for more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season at Hardaway -- which made him a Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City pick in 2009 -- Smith had no doubts he could replicate his success at the college level.

Then fall camp started.

His accuracy wasn't up to par, and Louisville's coaches noticed. That's when an idea was hatched: Why not move Smith to defense?

He accepted it, begrudgingly.

"It was very, very hard for me at first coming from the offensive side of the ball," Smith said. "I had to change my mentality. I had to change every aspect of the way I thought about football. It had to change."

Still, Smith wanted a second opinion. So he called up Kendall Mills, who had coached him in both football and basketball at Hardaway and had become one of his closest confidants.

"He said, 'Coach, they have to teach me how to tackle. I haven't tackled since I played in fifth or sixth grade,'' Mills recalled. "And I said, 'Well Marcus, if they think that's what's best for you, you need to try it.' I said, 'Do you want to play?'

"He said, 'I want to play.' I said, 'Well, if you have to learn how to tackle to get on the field, that's what you're going to have to do.'"

It didn't come easy.

Playing at linebacker during his freshman season, Smith finished with just three tackles. But he wasn't able to settle in yet. When his sophomore season rolled around, the Cardinals asked him to shift again, this time to defensive end.

That marked a turning point in his career.

While he tallied only 12 tackles that year, he recorded a team-high 5.5 sacks. Working with defensive line coach Clint Hurtt, Smith continued to grow more comfortable with his new role. He notched 29 tackles as a junior, with a team-best seven tackles for loss. In addition, he added four more sacks.

All of that was a mere prelude to this past season.

Smith was a dominant force for the Cardinals, collecting 42 tackles (18.5 for loss) and 14.5 sacks. Those efforts helped him garner the American Athletic Conference's defensive player of the year award in December.

"It was big," Smith said. "I hadn't won any awards since high school, and to win the AAC player of the year meant everything to me, because I knew all the hard work I'd put in had paid off."

But as he was quick to point out, his work is far from over. Instead, it is simply the next step on the road to the NFL.

He ticked off the teams he has already had private workouts with since his college career ended.

The Carolina Panthers.

The Atlanta Falcons.

The New England Patriots.

The Tennessee Titans.

The Oakland Raiders.

New England plans to bring him back for a second workout Monday, and then it's off to meet with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday. And that's it. Once he leaves the Cardinals' facility Tuesday, Smith said his private workout tour will be over.

Each team has, more or less, told him the same thing: They love his pass-rushing and his ability to drop into pass coverage. Shedding blockers in the run game, however, needs work.

He hasn't let a word of their advice -- or constructive criticism -- go to waste.

"There's always room for improvement, and every time they tell me that, I always take it into consideration and try to work on it that same week when I'm done working out with them," he said. "The whole process has just been learning and taking in what coaches try to teach you and trying to work on your craft."

Confident player

At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, Smith is the classic NFL "tweener" -- too small, at his current weight, anyway, to be an every-down defensive end. But owing to the wide range of philosophies in the NFL, that's the same position the Panthers had him work at when he visited with them this week.

Regardless of where he plays, Smith was confident he'll excel.

"Most teams have told me when they bring me in that they want me to play outside linebacker. I'll be rushing standing up as an outside linebacker, but sometimes I can put my hand in the dirt," he said. " … I think I'm flexible enough to play both (defensive end and linebacker), because I can gain the type of weight they would need (for me) to play defensive end and I'm already the perfect weight for outside linebacker. But in the draft, it's about flexibility for my type of player."

And what of the numerous mock drafts and other projections floating around at this time of year? Smith couldn't pay them any less attention. If he learned one thing from Hurtt, who is now the assistant defensive line coach for the Chicago Bears, it's that those in the media realm know very little.

It's all just noise.

"What everybody else talks about doesn't matter," Smith said. "It's all about what the coaches say and what scouts and GMs (general managers) say. That's all you should listen to. Around this time is the best time not to watch ESPN or the NFL Network, because a lot of times, that's not accurate. You won't know what's really going on until (draft) day actually comes."

That hasn't stopped draft analysts from giving their take, though. ESPN's Mel Kiper pegged Smith between a late second-round and early fourth-round selection. It was a similar assessment from NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki, who has Smith going off the board in either the third or fourth round.

According to his own sources, Smith won't have to wait nearly that long.

"What coaches tell me is that my stock is going up. I could potentially be a late-first, early-second (round) guy," he said, noting that he plans to watch the draft in Louisville, surrounded by a select group of family members. "It just depends on how the draft goes. So I'm looking at late-first, early-second right now just because of how my stock has continued to rise because of what I've done on the field. Plus, I have no off-the-field issues, so I have a clean slate."

That's the way he's always been, Mills said. A "Yes sir, No sir'-type with parents that served as "strong role models."

Smith's forthrightness, especially when it came to sharing his faith, has left a lasting impression on his former coach.

"I remember one time I asked him about how he handled a certain situation and he said, 'I just have to stay prayed up,'" Mills said. "He brought religion up to me. And in the times since that moment, I'll say, 'Stay prayed up, Marcus.' I'm a 41-year-old man, and I'd never said that kind of thing to anyone. He's not ashamed of his religious beliefs."

There was another heartfelt interaction with Smith that Mills remembered every bit as fondly. Two years ago, Smith was unsure what the future held for him. That's when he asked Mills about a coaching career. Taken aback, Mills told Smith he "had the chance of a lifetime." The NFL was still on the horizon, and it would be foolish to give up on that just yet.

Whenever that ended, however, Mills assured Smith he would reserve a spot on Hardaway's coaching staff.

"I would definitely welcome him back to work under me, although his name will probably be much bigger than mine," Mills said. "He's just a great kid and I just can't say enough about him. I wish him the best of luck in the future."

And in looking ahead, Smith refused to set simple goals, such as simply making a roster or recording a few tackles.

If Smith lives up to his own lofty expectations, he'll one day have a bust of himself in Canton, Ohio.

"I still have a lot of work to do," he said. "I want to lead the NFL in sacks. I want to be a Pro Bowler. I want to be a Hall of Famer."

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