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JOESAM2002 08-11-2004 09:17 AM

Will Smith, multiple roles......
1st-round pick Smith embraces multiple roles
Coaches cast rookie as "Joe Johnson"-type
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer
Keep your eyes on Will Smith.

The Saints' rookie first-round draft pick is all over the place these days. One plaleft end. The next he's at right end. One play he's in a three-point stance rushing the passer. The next he's standing up like a linebacker and dropping into pass coverage.

Like his namesake, Smith is a man who can play many roles.

"They're playing me everywhere," Smith said Monday night after another impressive day of work with his new team.

Smith has done nothing to disappoint team officials since signing a six-year, $9.625-million contract Aug. 1. He's quickly established himself as the team's fastest pass rusher and has impressed coaches with his maturity, intensity and conscientious study habits.

"I'm very happy with him," defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "Obviously there's a lot of football ahead. You've got to see everybody when the lights go on and you're playing against opposition. But I don't think we're going to have to worry about Will Smith."

While Smith has earned raves from coaches and teammates, he's hardly been noticed by the media. The scrutiny has concentrated on other positions and players, allowing Smith to quietly go about his business in the shadows, a rarity for a first-round pick.

"It's just a job," Smith said. "It's a job I go to every day, all day. I wasn't used to focusing on football all the time. That's probably the biggest adjustment."

The on-field learning process has come easier. Smith credits the experience of playing at a major college such as Ohio State for facilitating the adjustment.

"The speed is different, but it's nothing that I didn't expect," Smith said. "Some of the plays I don't know. If I don't know the play, then I'll be a little bit slower because I'm behind. So far, though, everything is going good."

When the Saints selected Smith with the No. 18 overall pick in April's draft, some questioned why a club with good young ends such as Darren Howard and Charles Grant would take a player like Smith in the first round. Who's going to sit? Where would he play?

The answer is everywhere.

Officially, Smith is listed on the depth chart behind Howard at right end. Unofficially, he's the third starting end. He's the first end to sub for either starter, and is on the field in almost every passing situation.

"We should be able to put some speed on the field on third down," defensive line coach John Pease said. "We should be able to get after some people. Darren can run. And Charles Grant can run. Brian Young can run. We've got what we're looking for. We're looking for physical guys who have great speed to the ball. That's always been the key to the defensive line."

At Saturday night's Black and Gold Scrimmage, Smith had one of the defense's six sacks and showed that he can hold his own against the run.

Smith's size was the lone question mark about him coming out of Ohio State. At 6-2, 275 pounds, he lacks prototypical size at end and is clearly smaller than either Howard or Grant. Smith compensates with uncommon strength and power and non-stop hustle.

"He plays hard, which for rookies now a days, that's a big plus," veteran left tackle Wayne Gandy said. "Just to have a guy that gives the effort and has desire and isn't just resting on his laurels."

In Smith's case, Pease said, size doesn't matter.

"A 22-magnum bullet is as effective as a 45-magnum," Pease said. "Muzzle velocity counts. He's a rocket."

Smith clocked a time of 4.58 in the 40-yard dash during his workout for scouts this spring. The time was the best of any defensive end in the draft and one of the fastest ever recorded for a defensive lineman.

Smith uses that speed to beat tackles off the edge, similar to Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney or Philadelphia's Jevon Kearse. Saints coaches, though, said Smith has more strength and better power than either of those one-dimensional types.

"Freeney is truly a speed rusher," Gandy said. "You can take a guy like Will and on third down put him in the three-technique, because he does have some good strength and he plays hard. He's not in that mold of a run-up-the-field, speed-rush guy."

Venturi agreed. He compares Smith's hand and upper-body strength to former Saints Pro Bowl player Joe Johnson.

"Freeney was really a jet, edge guy," Venturi said. "Will Smith has speed off the edge, but Will is a square, solid player. He's a puncher. He can punch like Joe Johnson can punch. He doesn't play like an edge guy."

Before the draft, Pease compared Smith to another ex-Pro Bowler: Jaguars standout Tony Brackens. Smith has done nothing so far to alter his opinion.

"He's exciting," Pease said. "I think it was a great pick, no doubt about it. He's Tony Brackens."

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