Smith-Williams Ready For Next Step, Regardless of Position

Brett Friedlander

James Smith-Williams was an outside linebacker when he came to NC State from Raleigh’s Millbrook High School five years ago.

It wasn’t until he gained 60 pounds and switched to defensive end that his career with the Wolfpack took off.

Now that he’s ready to move on to the next phase of his football career, there’s a good chance Smith-Williams will come full circle by returning to his former position.

It’s an idea that was first floated at NFL’s Scouting Combine in February, when talent evaluators at the pre-draft event asked the former State captain to participate in some linebacker drills as well as those with the defensive linemen.

Not that he had much choice in the matter.

“There wasn’t a lot of asking at the Combine,” Smith-Williams said Monday in an exclusive interview with SI All Wolfpack. “They told me I’d be doing linebacker drills, too. For the most part, I think every edge guy did. I was fine with it. I’ve done a little bit of dropping at NC State and the things we did linebacker-wise weren’t too intensive that we needed months or weeks to train for. So it was a good experience.

“Going in I’ve always been like a ‘tweener guy. I can be a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. So I think that they’re looking for clarity in that regard, what position is the best fit, what is the future going to be.”

While Smith-Williams' NFL position might still be in doubt, any questions that lingered about his ability to play in the league were answered by his performance in Indianapolis.

The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Raleigh native put on an impressive display of speed, strength and agility by finishing in the top 10 among defensive linemen in the bench press (28 reps of 225 pounds), broad jump (10 feet, three inches), three-cone run (7.35 seconds) and vertical jump (32.0 inches).

It was his effort in the 40-yard dash, however, that opened the most eyes.

Predicted by several draft experts, including ESPN's Jim Nagy, to run the fastest time among players in the 250-275 pound range, Smith-Williams lived up to the hype by recording a blistering 4.61 time in the event.

"I think it really went well," he said. "I think I hit every benchmark I set. There was a lot of pressure going into the 40. Luckily that turned out all right and I checked that box there."

As important as Smith-Williams' strong showing at the Combine seemed at the time, it has taken on even greater meaning now that all offseason football activities have been suspended because of the coronavirus crisis.

"I think I'm a guy that would have benefitted from having those private workouts, having that Pro Day and being able to do some linebacker drills and combination defensive end drills depending on the scheme of defense the team is running," he said. "So it's really fortunate that I got to have the Combine and the East-West (Shrine Bowl), because a lot of guys had neither."

Smith-Willams said that he's had contact with virtually every NFL team over the past month and that he gets a call almost every day.

But despite that interest, he's still only projected as a late-round pick.

One big reason, besides the uncertainty over his position, is his medical history. He suffered season-ending injuries as both a freshman and redshirt freshman and missed five games with a series of maladies last season.

He received a clean bill of health when examined at the Combine. But that might be enough to answer teams' questions about his long-term durability.

"I think that's a little overblown," Smith-Williams said of his medical history. "Obviously last year sucked. It was like little pieces. I got banged up early and that's not ideal. But the year before that I played like 90 percent of the snaps on defense. 

"Obviously the most recent year does hurt. That's the last thing people see. But in the same breath, I don't think it's defining in any way."

Despite having his pre-draft plans altered by the social distancing restrictions that forced everyone around the country to become homebound, Smith-Williams is doing what he can to stay busy.

And stay in shape.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that I’m back in Raleigh and working out with a guy I’ve trained with before,: he said of former Wolfpack linebacker Airius Moore. "We were lifting in the gym. Obviously that changed as the situation got worse with COVID-19. Right now he does my movement stuff at a local park. We’re still like 10 feet apart at all times and I lift here at my house. I have a bar, a couple of plates and some dumb bells, nothing I can get a functional workout in."