The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the entire globe and has left each individual with the unfortunate task of navigating the aftermath to the best of their ability.
For the sports world, each league both collegiate and professional, have done their best to go back to business as usual. Of course, that has led to many obstacles, detours and unsure moments.
For college football, it wasn’t long ago that a full cancellation seemed inevitable. Even several Power Five conferences (Big Ten and PAC 12) didn’t seem to have the resources necessary to pull off a fall season, or at least the desire to.
Ultimately, football would win out. Many conferences would reconsider, returning to action per the wishes of their players.
A part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), East Carolina University had some nice expectations offensively going into the 2020 season, with quarterback Holton Ahlers and the crew ending on a high note in 2019. Outside of the talented signal-caller, ECU boasted one of the more talented trio of wide receivers in all of college football, including C.J. Johnson, Blake Proehl and Tyler Snead.
The aerial assault would catch the main headlines (no pun intended) but it was one talented offensive lineman who stood as the most experienced member of the talented unit. Heading into the season, starting left tackle D’Ante Smith had started 25 straight contests, including 32 total appearances. Widely acclaimed as the Pirates' top player on the offensive line, Smith was on the shortlist of my many National lists and accolades heading into the year.
Now a senior heading into his last campaign, Smith was excited just to leave all the outside distractions behind him and try his best to enjoy his final season in Greenville, North Carolina.
“I just wanted to go out and focus on football, just be me and go out there and do me,” Smith said.
The season ultimately would not turn out the way Smith and the Pirates had hoped. While Smith dealt with a non-disclosed injury, which halted his consecutive start streak at 27, the continued challenges of this chaotic season would force Smith to make a decision that he never wanted to make.
With the NFL on the horizon and a 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl invitation in tow, Smith would ultimately opt to begin his preparation for a potentially turbulent draft process.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity first off, I’m grateful to grow and learn from this.”
Now training out in Las Vegas, the mission has stayed the same. Playing in the NFL has been a dream of his for a long time. A dream that is soon set to become a reality. As for the next step in the process, Mobile, Alabama is calling his name.
Smith is set to put his talents to the test against some of the most talented seniors in the 2021 NFL Draft class. When asked about what he intends to improve in Mobile, Smith took a similar approach, treating everything as his resume.
“I’m just excited to learn and take in new things down there and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Every year we see an unheralded offensive lineman transcend their reputation and burst onto the NFL scene. Smith is the newest talented offensive lineman with high expectations heading down to the Senior Bowl, set to begin on January 25th.
While some may grab the attention early, Smith is going to have a ton of opportunity on the line to impress scouts and decision-makers alike.
FROM A SCOUT’S EYE
Smith’s film is a bit of a slow burn evaluation. You can clearly see the talent but it takes a larger scope of film to really appreciate the talent he possesses. For as nice as the flashes are, what could be, is even more exciting for Smith. He’s not a finished product - nor should he be. Smith is the type of player who evaluators might buy low on but before you know it, you have well above the return on investment.
Balanced with active feet, Smith is able to climb to the second level and locate his target without any issue. There are some clean and translatable traits for Smith athletically. He moves with ease and is so comfortable navigating space. Once he is able to frame opposing defenders, he does a nice job creating outstanding power in tight spaces, with an extremely powerful lower half.
Smith does an excellent job remaining balanced and square in pass protection, allowing clear vision to work against movement up front and secondary rushers. Movement presents no issue to Smith, as he remains patient in his set.
The best offensive lineman play with a bit of a mean streak. Playing until the echo of the whistle is not a trait; it’s a mindset. There are more than a few instances of Smith getting under the skin of opposing defenders.
Creating power in such tight quarters is an underrated aspect of offensive line play. Inability to create leverage and movement on initial content can be troublesome and debilitating to an offense. When Smith gets his hips aligned and frames properly, there is a ton of power that he can unlock through his hips and torso.
Low man wins; a common moniker of offensive line play. What goes into maintaining low pads? Flexibility is a huge point of conversation and an important trait when talking about offensive lineman. Something that Smith is in no short supply of. He consistently comes off the line low and balanced, putting some outstanding down blocks on film. Just watch how explosive Smith is off the snap. His athleticism is again on full display.
In pass protection, smoothness is again what pops off the film for Smith. He stays compact, balanced and square to his set point. Smith gets there with minimal effort, keeping his inside shoulder firm, allowing no potential inside counter. He has late hands, allowing his feet to get aligned to counter momentum at the top of the track.
Listed at only 274 pounds, Smith appears light… something that will be a huge emphasis on his development early on in his career. That playing weight has been a big point of emphasis for Smith during training.
“Currently, I’m at 305, so if I keep toning myself I know I can handle 310. The goal weight is the weight I can handle and do my job.”
During his training, Smith has been doing everything from weight training, on-field training, question prep and film work. When asked about potential role models he likes to emulate, Smith brought up a couple of talented offensive linemen that he keeps a close eye on.
“I don’t necessarily model my game around them but I like to watch Laremy Tunsil and Dion Dawkins a lot.”
As he continues to develop, Smith is sure to capture a substantial amount of attention amongst the NFL evaluator community. What coaches can’t teach, namely natural athleticism and arm length (rumored to be 35-plus inches), Smith is on a mission to fully unlock his long term potential.
For the lucky NFL coach who is able to help Smith reach his potential, one NFL team has the chance to get a true diamond in the rough with a very high upside.