Coming out of high school,
But then someone at a football camp caught a glimpse of the then 6-foot-3, 200-pound player under center and noticed that a position switch would give him the best chance at finding success at the next level.
That man was Charlie Strong.
Strong, now the head coach at the University of Texas, saw something special in Smith, and when Strong was named the head coach at the University of Louisville prior to the 2010 season, he knew that Smith could make a difference for his team.
“He came to camp, and I was at the University of Florida at the time, so we had what we called ‘Friday Night Lights’ where we invite a lot of the top prospects to come,” Strong explained. “Marcus is from Columbus, so he comes down and we see this big old 6-foot-3 guy, probably about 200 pounds throwing the ball, and I was like, ‘He’s not a quarterback. I know he’s something, but I don’t know what he is. I know he isn’t a quarterback.’
“So when I get the job at Louisville, I called him and I said that I had become the head coach at the University of Louisville and that I would like for him to come and play for me. I said, ‘I’ll give you an opportunity to play quarterback,’ but that probably lasted about two days before I said that he wasn’t a quarterback. So I moved him to linebacker, and at that time he probably weighed about 212 pounds.”
As Smith has mentioned multiple times since being drafted by the Eagles with the 26th overall pick on Thursday, the transition from the hunted to the hunter came with a bit of a mental adjustment period. Still, Strong saw potential in his athletic defender.
“It was funny because last night I was laughing and we were talking about him as a freshman, and we opened up the season against Kentucky, and they had (Randall) Cobb there, who is a great player for the Green Bay Packers,” Strong said with a laugh. “So they’re in what they call the Wildcat formation and Cobb goes down the boundary for about 50 yards, and Marcus is standing there at outside linebacker and he just kind of watches it happen and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if this man can play linebacker now. There goes the ball and he’s just standing there looking at it.’
"But then to watch him move to linebacker to when I moved him down and let him play a lot of standup, and he’s just so athletic and he can do a lot of things. Because of the speed he has, he can put so much pressure on the tackle with him being an outside rusher. He creates a problem.”
Smith became more and more problematic for opposing offenses during each of his four seasons with the Cardinals. His collegiate metamorphosis from quarterback to linebacker was capped off with a 14.5-sack senior season, which ranked second in the nation.
According to Strong, Smith was able to pick up the position in a short amount of time for a number of reasons.
“When we moved him we knew that he had toughness to him,” Strong said. “He’s very instinctive and you had to have a feel for the position. He’s a guy that can drop into coverage also because he’s so athletic, so if I ever need him to drop and cover a running back man-to-man. He was just one of those guys, kind of a hybrid between a linebacker and a guy that can put his hand down and go rush, and I moved him around a lot because I just tried to create a mismatch. I tried to find which tackle wasn’t a great pass protector so I could get Marcus one-on-one with him, and let him just go rush the quarterback.
“He has great coordination and great balance. He can open up his hips and flip his hips and get into coverage and square up his body and then go break on the football, so I don’t think that will ever be an issue for him, because I know that he will develop and will continue to get better at that level.”
After hearing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announce that Smith had been selected by the Eagles on Thursday night, the man who is now running the Texas Longhorns football program took a moment to call his former pupil and celebrate the moment with him.
As Smith begins another transition from Cardinal to Eagle, his college coach is confident that Smith checks off all the boxes of what makes a great football player.
“He plays the game with a lot of energy, and here’s what I always judge: I judge effort, I judge whether a guy can really learn and then I judge just the fundamentals and technique,” said Strong. “He’s going to give you the effort, and then when you talk about learning his assignment, he’s going to learn what to do. So now you get a guy who plays with a high motor and he knows what to do, and then his fundamentals are in place. Now you’re going to be able to develop a good football player.
“I know that a lot of guys have the skill set. They are really good players in the NFL, but you look at them as a person, and he’s an outstanding person with great character and an unbelievable young man, and that’s why I feel like he’s only going to get better and better, because he’s going to be willing to learn, and he’s one of those guys who will put the time in, and he won’t have any issues.”