How would you describe Wendell Smallwood's first season as an Eagle? Promising? At times, it was. Puzzling? Certainly, his work flow was uneven, to say the least. A learning experience? Ah, we may have hit on something right there.
"It was definitely something different," Smallwood said on Thursday after a practice during which he ripped off several big runs in live-hitting periods at the NovaCare Complex. "Coming in here knowing what to expect a year later makes a world of difference for me."
Smallwood became the fifth Eagles rookie to rush for 300-plus yards and gain 250-plus yards in the return game, but his season was so roller-coasterish along the way. He tore up the Steelers in the Week 3 win with 17 carries, 79 yards, and a touchdown, and then had only 57 more carries in the remaining 10 games before landing on Injured Reserve with a knee injury. An 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Washington accounted for a huge highlight on special teams, but then Smallwood had only six more kickoff returns the rest of the season.
"Wendell has improved so much," running backs coach Duce Staley said in the spring about Smallwood. "He's come a long way, knowing the offense, knowing how to be ready for the long season. He had some moments last year. Rookie season, a lot of ups and downs. This season, he's in a different place."
Smallwood is in a much better place. He's added some muscle – Smallwood is up five pounds to 210 – and more important he has added the veteran's know-how of what to expect.
The result is a sharper and more aggressive Smallwood. On Thursday, Smallwood was fast to and through holes. He made defenders miss. He broke tackles. He gained big yards with LeGarrette Blount out for a third straight day attending to personal business.
"The thing is, the game has slowed down a tremendous amount for me," Smallwood said. "And for me, it has nothing to do with my physical abilities. It was my mental game last year. I was thinking about things before we started a play, before we ran a play. Where am I supposed to be? What is my assignment on this play? Things like that.
"Now I'm just out there playing. I'm not thinking of the wrong things. I'm reading my keys, working my technique and getting my assignment done and being patient."
Smallwood went through what every rookie experiences: The voices inside the head become louder and more demanding. The noise becomes, then, a distraction. And distractions lead to mistakes and mistakes lead to fewer opportunities on the field.
"I'm not talking to myself anymore," he said. "With that gone, I'm able to be more natural and just play. As a running back, you have to be decisive. You have to go full speed no matter what you do. I feel like I've made a big jump. When we have these 'live' days, I'm happy with my performance and what I'm doing on the field.
) has taught me so much. He never lets up. He's been playing 13 years and he never has the mentality that he's 'made it.' He plays like his hair is on fire. I'm only on Year 2. I'm never going to think I've 'made it.' But I've come a long way from wondering if I was good enough or doubting myself. I don't think like that anymore. It's definitely a little intimidating when you first walk into an NFL locker room. I just feel like I've learned how to get ready and to prepare myself, so that when I step on the field I have a lot more confidence."
From a technical standpoint, Smallwood says he "wasn't in tune with my pad level" last year, meaning he ran too high and not enough behind his pads. Now he's lower and he's got more leverage and "pop" when he's running in traffic.
Smallwood's development is critical for an Eagles offense that wants to get everything set up with the running game and then work the play-action passing game off of the run threat. Blount is here and he's going to get his touches, particularly in short-yardage and red zone situations, but Smallwood is going to touch the football a lot. Staley will oversee the situational substitution pattern, but know this: Smallwood is in line to bear a large responsibility in the ground game.
He's ready for the work.
"Yeah, you know I love days when we have 'live' periods. It was like real football out there today," he said. "Everyone was real aggressive and it was fun. It got me going. Days like this really build confidence. Now my goal is to be better tomorrow. We're just starting this season. I want to do what I can to help the entire year."