“It’s just a dream come true,” Smith said. “Everything that I wanted to happen fell in place. Yesterday, when my name got called, I was very happy and my family was happy and I’m just happy to be an Eagle. Going into (the draft), I had an idea when I was going to get drafted. It was a surprise to me when (the Eagles) called me, but I was very happy when they called me and told me that they were going to be drafting me. I just want to be a part of something special, and I know they have something special in this organization. I just want to be a part of it.”
Smith was recruited out of high school as a quarterback and took an unconventional route to becoming one of the best defensive players in the entire country as a senior at Louisville. Then again, it’s his background and path of development that contributed to his appeal to the Eagles.
“When I got to Louisville, I played quarterback,” Smith said. “There were two seniors in front of me. I wasn’t getting a lot of reps, throwing some balls in the dirt. Coach (Charlie) Strong came up to me and asked if I wanted to play on his defense, and I just told him that I’d do whatever it takes to get on the field. We had a two-a-day that day, and the second practice he let me play defense. I was playing (strongside) linebacker then, and the rest is history. I stayed on the defensive side of the ball. Going into the spring, we had a lot of defensive ends hurt, so they moved me to defensive end. So I played five-technique my sophomore year, and I just kept moving up my junior year and my senior year. Then they started moving me around and standing me up a lot more when I got more comfortable with the defense.”
The position transition was not easy at first for Smith, who had to put on a lot of weight and transform his body.
“I think I needed to get my legs stronger,” Smith said of transitioning to defensive end and outside linebacker. “I had to gain a lot of weight. I was 217 (pounds) when I (came to Louisville). I’m weighing 255 now, the highest I’ve ever been was 265 when I played five-technique. Then (coaches) moved me to the weakside end and let me stand up a little bit more, and that’s when I dropped down in weight. My playing weight is 250-255, somewhere in that range.”
Smith also had to transform his mentality as a football player and harness a defensive mindset, a violent and killer instinct in order to maximize his ability. Once he was able to do that, his play on the field took off.
“I think in the offseason, when we did stuff like mat drills and wrestling with each other, getting at each other and being very competitive, that’s where I feel that I built (a killer instinct), and I brought it to the football field,” Smith said. “Having a killer instinct, everything that you do has to be very violent. That’s what my coach preached all the time, and once I got that violence, I started to be a very, very violent player and I started to be successful.”
General manager Howie Roseman explained why the Eagles valued Smith so highly, praising both his on-field ability and off-field work habits.
“I think he’s highly competitive,” Roseman said. He’s a determined kid. He wants to succeed. He’s going to work really hard at it. That’s part of what we’re trying to have here. We’re trying to have people who aren’t just happy to get into the National Football League, but what are they going to do when they’re here? He's going to work at it. He’s going to come every day and work at it. He’s going to do whatever it takes to be a better player. We have the right support system starting with the coaching staff to get it out of him.
"He’s a really good athlete. He’s got the ability to drop and play in space and they moved him all over, his versatility shows up (on tape). It’s hard to miss. His ability to do that and to do the things that we’re asking our linebackers to do, and the other stuff he admits that he’s got to work on are all things we see. One of the things that’s encouraging to us is when you get a guy like
Even as a first-round pick, Smith is not satisfied and acknowledged there are parts of his game he wants to improve. The Eagles selected Smith because of the skills he showed in college and the ceiling he has as he continues to progress.
“I feel like the number one strength in my game is the pass rush,” Smith said. “What I want to improve upon most is setting a firmer edge in the run game because you have to be able to get through first and second down before you can rush the passer. I want to be that every-down player who can help the team win.”
Count Smith’s college coach, Charlie Strong, who is now the head coach at Texas, as a believer in his former pupil’s potential.
“Once he learns what to do, because he’s going to give you the effort and he plays with good fundamentals and techniques, he’s only going to get better,” Strong said. “The guy’s just going to get better and better. It’s not that the position is new to him, but he’s willing to learn and take his game to the next level.”