Two years ago, national pundits were saying that while the Seahawks lacked elite talent in other areas, their linebacking corps might be the best in the NFL. At the time, Seattle boasted a trio of Leroy Hill, Lofa Tatupu, and new draft pick Aaron Curry. The thought was that the 'Hawks could field three guys capable of going sideline-to-sideline, thus eliminating the second level of defense from any offense's repertoire. It sounded nice, in theory, and I'll admit that I got caught up in that excitement.
Unfortunately, building a defense around linebackers is akin to building a pitching staff around middle relievers. Sure, having a stud at Mike 'Backer is a huge bonus; most of the great defenses in NFL history have had one, but skill at the second level can be all but negated by weakness at the first or third. Anyhow, all three of those LBotFs have left the team since those proclamations were made (all though Leroy is back) and Seattle finds itself re-tooling with young, athletic talent at the position. I touched on the potential of the new young LBs the other day, and found myself particularly intrigued by rookie 7th round draft pick Malcolm Smith from USC.
Fortunately for me (and you!), Agent Smith graciously agreed to give Field Gulls an interview, the body of which is after the jump.
We hear a lot about the guys at the top of the draft each year; the players who are prominent enough to have a headshot appear over the left should over a SportsCenter anchor. Those are the guys who provide the most comment-section hubbub -- the ones who have been marked as a sure thing and over whom GMs are frantically trying to maneuver themselves to get to. Then there are the other, more fascinating 97% of players who approach the Draft Days unsure of whether or not they'll have a career in football.
Malcolm Smith was one of those guys. He was taken with the 242nd pick out of 254, on the razor's edge between being selected and having to scrap in hopes of getting a UDFA deal. "It was one of those days," said Smith, "really long. I didn't really know what to expect." Smith watched the draft on TV with his family and as the picks kept flashing up on the screen he begin to question himself. "You start to think about all the choices you've made along the way, wonder what you could've done differently."
Smith has, like any NFL player, worked hard to even put himself in a position to be drafted. The road to a career in professional football is rarely an easy one, but Smith's journey included a particularly unusual obstacle. "After our second Rose Bowl, I came in one day and everybody was like 'you look sick.' I had been having trouble swallowing my food and I was throwing it back up a lot. At first, I thought I just had heartburn or something but the trainers and doctors couldn't figure out what it was." It turned out that Smith suffers from a rare (like, 1 in 100,000 people rare) condition called achalasia, which inflames the esophagus and makes eating nearly impossible.
Being unable to eat would be tough enough for anybody to deal with, but when you're a Division I linebacker with NFL aspirations, it can be devastating. "I was up around 230 pounds before I got it but I dropped all the way to 195. I tried to force food down but it I couldn't do it." Smith's efforts to eat eventually caused an esophageal hernia, requiring an operation. "After the surgery, I had to re-teach myself how to eat, but I've learned how to deal with it and I hope that anybody else who has this sees that you can still be successful." Smith eventually got back to full strength and finished his college career with two impressive seasons, averaging eight tackles a game over his Junior and Senior seasons and placing himself on the radar for NFL teams.
And when the phone finally rang? "Ah man, just a relief. I had to go out to my car to get better reception, so I was talking to them out there. Then I came back in and everyone was real excited." The man on the other end of the line was GM John Schneider. "He said 'we'd like to select you for the Seahawks, is that alright?' (laughs). I said 'yes sir.'" His selection by Seattle meant that Smith would be reunited with the man who had recruited him and his older brother Steve (now of the Philadelphia Eagles) to USC and who coached him during his first three years in college. That history helped give Seattle an idea of what Smith was capable of, but he wasn't drafted purely off of familiarity. "Coach Carroll said that this was an opportunity for me to show what I could do, and that this was not a USC thing. He said 'we've got plans for you.'"
Smith's adjustment to life as a pro has gone fairly smoothly, but there are some considerations he didn't know came with the gig. "Lot of off the field stuff, you know, that's not so easily taken care of. Expenses and commitments that I'm not used to having," but the field of play is where the toughest transition lies. "Everyone is a lot faster and stronger than in college, a lot of competition every day. I'm just trying to make big plays when I get the chance and help the team, but I'm definitely gaining confidence."
That confidence and eagerness to contribute will be necessary on a team as young as the 'Hawks. Seattle only has seven players on their roster that are older than 28, and the result is a lot of battling for spots between guys without lengthy NFL track records. Consequently, there's been a lot of roster shuffling, more of which is line now that erstwhile starting OLB Aaron Curry has been traded to the Oakland Raiders. Smith said he was a little shocked when he first heard of the deal, "but KJ (Wright) has been getting more time at that position, so I guess it's not too surprising. You know I don't know how the front office decisions are made but it sounds like it'll work out for both parties. All I can do is keep working."
When asked if he's seen his role with the team change at all since Curry's departure, Smith deferred. "Not necessarily. I mean, I'm still working at outside linebacker, backing up Leroy (Hill), just making sure I'm learning as much as I can so I'm ready when I get my opportunity." Smith said that this is a still a team with a lot of developing players all working together "to get that win. That's what really matters."
Carroll, he says, has been a big part of that mentality. Much has been made (here and elsewhere) about Carroll's "rah rah" style of coaching and whether that approach can successfully transition to the professional level. Smith swears that it has, and I suppose he would know as well as anyone. "His attitude is the same now as it was then. Just a ton of energy every single day. Coach Carroll is excellent at motivating the guys but at the same time he understands that these aren't 17 year-olds. He gets that this is a career for us now and that he's dealing with grown men."
I asked Malcolm if these grown men really buy in to Pete Carroll, or if it's just because he's their coach. "It's not like that. He buys into us, the coaches buy into the players so it all works together. It's not about whether we buy into them are not, because everyone is working together. The coaches are doing everything they can to help us so when we practice it really is as a team." Smith says that attitude has fostered a camaraderie among the guys, but when I pointed out that there are a lot of Pac 10(12?) guys on the roster he said that the rivalries still exist. "Yeah, Saturdays can get a little crazy. Lots of Pac-10 guys talking smack to each other but when those SEC or ACC guys get in we all kind of band together and go back and forth with the guys from the other conferences."
Smith offers a skill set rarely seen at the linebacker position. At just six feet tall, he relies on his athleticism more heavily than most, but athleticism is something Smith has oodles of.* He boasts a 4.4 40 time and did 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench and, while few players are ever running in a straight line for 40 yards or pressing vertical weight, those numbers are strong indicators of his physical prowess. Perhaps the best thing a late-round pick can do to cement a roster spot is contribute on special teams and Smith's impressive speed, combined with his tackling ability, make him a perfect fit for that role as he awaits a larger opportunity on defense.
*Yeah, I said oodles.
Smith also represents a really cool project called School of the Legends, which partners with NFL teams to give fans more access to players through a number of interactions. Smith represents the Seahawks and you can check out his video updates here. I'll admit I underestimated the website when I first heard of it, but it turns out that they have almost 2,000 athletes contributing to the website. It's worth a look.