PHILADELPHIA - Eagles first-round draft pick Marcus Smith has gone from trying to avoid sacks to collecting them.
Smith entered the University of Louisville as a quarterback, only to switch to defense less than one day into his college football career. He promptly blossomed into one of the country's top pass rushers, which led the Eagles to select him Thursday night with the 26th overall pick in the NFL draft.
"There were two senior quarterbacks in front of me at Louisville, and I wasn't getting a lot of reps in practice," Smith said Friday during his introductory press conference at the NovaCare Complex. "I was throwing some balls in the dirt. (Former Louisville head coach Charlie) Strong came up to me and asked if I wanted to play on his defense.
"I hadn't played defense since Pop Warner, but I said I'd do whatever it takes to get on the field. We had a two-a-day practice (schedule) that day, so the second practice he let me play defense. And the rest is history."
The transition was difficult, both physically and emotionally.
He weighed 217 pounds when he showed up at Louisville after a standout career as a quarterback at Hardaway High School in Columbus, Ga. He hit the weight room and the cafeteria hard, eventually gaining about 40 pounds of muscle.
Smith also had to get meaner.
"At first, I didn't have the right mentality," Smith said. "In order to be successful on defense, you have to have a killer instinct. Everything you do has to very violent, and I still had the quarterback sense of humor. But the coaches stayed on my butt about it, and I eventually became a violent, aggressive and enthusiastic player."
Smith, whom former Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told radio station 97.3 ESPN he once nicknamed "Cupcake," soon changed his demeanor.
In the 2013 season, Smith ranked second in the country among players at Fooball Bowl Subdivision programs with 141/2 sacks, a half-sack behind Stanford University linebacker Trent Murphy. After the season, Smith also performed well at the Senior Bowl and during the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Still, the Eagles' decision to grab him at No. 26 after trading down from No. 22 in a deal with Cleveland raised eyebrows around the league. Some draft analysts rated Smith as a late second- or early third-round pick.
Eagles fans immediately recalled previous first-round mistakes such as defensive end Jerome McDougle (2003), wide receiver Freddie Mitchell (2001) and especially defensive end Jon Harris (1997).
"He was the next guy for us," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Thursday night about Smith. "We felt we could move back and get an (extra) pick (a third-rounder from the Browns), but we didn't want to move back too far because we didn't know if he would be gone. It's very, very difficult to find pass rushers, and (Smith) fits the mold for what we're looking for."
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman explained Friday that their draft board consisted of six players they were considering choosing with the 22nd overall pick, but all six were taken earlier by other teams.
If the team had not been able to work a trade to get an extra pick, Roseman said, they thought enough of Smith that they would have selected him at 22.
"Once those six guys went off the board, Marcus was at the top of our list," Roseman said. "He's one of the guys we targeted, and we're excited to get him. He's a great fit for us on and off the field."
Smith may not be an impact player right away, however.
Unlike last year's first-round pick, tackle Lane Johnson, Smith is not guaranteed a starting job. He will enter training camp as a backup behind incumbent starters Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, along with 2011 first-round pick Brandon Graham.
"We studied every pass rusher since 2008 to see how quickly those guys progressed," Roseman said. "Marcus doesn't have to play a thousand snaps right away. He can go in and compete (for playing time). Do we want to draft players who can play right away? Of course. But we draft players for the long-term future."
By using a first-round pick on a player who was generally projected to go later, however, the Eagles placed a considerable amount of pressure on Smith.
Expectations are always higher on someone taken in the first round. Demanding Eagles fans won't take kindly to seeing a first-round pick on the bench.
But Smith doesn't plan to be a backup.
"I would tell the fans to just sit back and relax," Smith said. "Even though I wasn't projected high, it's not about where you're projected. It's about what the coaches and general managers think of you.
"I'll try not to let anybody down. I will come in and work as hard as can be to be successful and contribute to this team. I feel like I can be a great player, and I'm going to work very hard to try and prove that to people."
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