Every good NFL team is adept at scouring the undrafted free agent wire. A potential gold mine after the conclusion of every draft, this sleeper pool of players presents opportunities. Players that go undrafted are not necessarily inherently less talented. They’re not necessarily less capable because they didn’t attend Ohio State and play in a national game every other week. Their playing profile and respective backgrounds might be less stated, but they are, often, just about as gifted. The NFL, in this sense, truly becomes their place to bloom.
New Bears linebacker Rashad Smith fits this bill. As one of the more productive players in Florida Atlantic history (if not the best player they’ve ever had), it would be unwise to prematurely count this linebacker out. Sure, the Bears are largely set on defense. They have stars and depth across the board. But the daunting prospect of making a name for yourself on a large platform has never stopped Smith before.
Not many understand Smith’s progression better than those who have watched him mature for years. In the interest of understanding his path, I spoke to Underdog Dynasty’s Managing Editor, Cyrus Smith. We touched on everything from a lack of coaching stability never holding Smith’s growth back, to an all-encompassing skill-set leading to him becoming one of college football’s recent more illustrious linebackers.
1. Following a nondescript freshman campaign, Smith became a reliable starter for the FAU over the last three seasons. What allowed him to contribute as he did? How would you characterize his collegiate career?
Cyrus Smith: Originally a Syracuse commit, Rashad Smith flipped to FAU on National Signing Day 2016 to stay close to home. While he ultimately would live up to the profile of a player capable of playing in a Power Five conference like the ACC, it took Smith some time to adjust to the collegiate level. He needed to fill out his frame a tad bit more. Once he did fill out, he was able to quickly become an impact player. As an inside backer for FAU, Smith used his speed to get around blockers and morph into a tackling machine. One of his underrated traits was his great playmaking instincts, as he led the nation in fumble recoveries last year. I’d say Smith more than lived up to the hype because he will go down as one of, if not the best defensive player in FAU history. A career statistical line of 300 tackles, 31 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, and seven interceptions is nothing to gloss over.
2. What are Smith’s strengths and weaknesses as a player? Where could he stand to improve, and where is he ahead of the curve?
CS: Smith had four different defensive coordinators during his career. He’s played in multiple base schemes such as the 4-2-5 and 3-3-3. As such, it won’t take him long to get a handle on his responsibilities with another new playbook as he enters the NFL. His biggest weakness is his size. Against power rushing teams FAU really struggled to stop the run. Smith’s 6-foot-1, 220 pound frame likely will push him more as an outside backer but shedding blocks will be key.
In Conference USA games he was able to evade blockers rather easily. I don’t think that’ll be the case in the NFL against tanks of linemen, and he’ll have to adjust. A fantastic nose for the ball might keep him on the field in the mean time.
3. If you were a member of the Bears’ defensive coaching staff (or special teams), how would you deploy Smith schematically and situationally?
CS: I think Smith could be an instant impact player on special teams. He has great speed for his size and is a sure tackler. On standard down and distance formations I would use him as a coverage linebacker, primarily in zone. While he made a ton of tackles, Smith was much better at defending the pass and running with running backs and tight ends. He’s really good at deceiving quarterbacks and reading their eyes to make plays on the ball. Finding a way to coax this out of him should be the goal.
4. As Smith steps up to the NFL, it’s worth asking: What’s one story or personal anecdote that epitomizes his FAU career?
CS: When Smith was a high school prospect he was high on FAU’s board. A local three-star prospect, FAU couldn’t become a solid football program and afford to miss out on kids like him in South Florida. When he committed to Syracuse it was a huge blow to local recruiting. But a couple of days later he flipped back to FAU. His signature on that dotted line meant a lot, solidifying the 2016 class as the best recruiting class in school history. With Smith leading the defense, FAU won a school record 11 games on two different occasions and won C-USA twice.
At a time when it was common for local kids to spurn the school in Boca Raton and head for the more prestigious Power Five teams, Smith instead stayed home. His decision and subsequent playing career laid the foundation for what is now one of the best Group of Five programs in the country.
Follow Cyrus on Twitter @CoolCyWrites and read his work at Underdog Dynasty.
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