At one point in his abbreviated college football career, now former-University of Northern Iowa defensive end Elerson Smith thought he had the world of football in the palm of his hand.
His college defensive line coach, former NFL outside linebacker Bryce Paup—yes, the 1995 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, four-time Pro Bowler, and first-team All-Pro—didn’t quite agree.
“You watch his high school film, and he had a great explosion off the ball. He would just beat people cause he was so fast,” Paup told Giants Country by phone. “There was athleticism, and you can’t coach that, but there wasn't a lot of technique there.
It wasn’t that Smith, who had worked to transform his body from being a rail-thin 6-foot-7,190-pounder to more along the lines of what a future NL defensive lineman should look like, wasn’t talented.
Paup, who transformed himself from a sixth-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa into an unstoppable defensive force in his prime, saw Smith headed down a rabbit hole that he had seen too many NFL players fall into, never to be heard from again.
“We knew he had potential, but there's a lot of people that have potential, but never reached their full potential,” Paup said.
“Why? Because they can't put it all together. This game is more than just athleticism. It's the ability to work hard to study, to do the right things at the right time to treat people right, to keep your nose clean all the time, and to be able to handle the mental stress that comes with it.”
Smith, according to Paup, aspired to become good enough to not only make it to the NFL but develop into the next great hidden gem.
The problem, though, is that Smith didn’t initially possess the mindset to make it happen in that while he wanted to be great, he didn’t necessarily do all the things that he needed to make it happen.
“We had to get Elerson out of that mindset because he didn’t know how to, for example, study film,” Paup said. “He thought he could go out and just beat people on talent. Yes, you can, but you're never going to last.”
Paup recalled how it took not one but two incidents during the 2018 season before Smith finally realized that if he was ever going to reach his dreams, he needed to be a lot more proactive.
The first incident came before the Panthers’ third game of the season, against Hampton.
“It’s Thursday, and it’s a script day, and he goes out there and makes the same mistake, like three times,” Paup recalled. So I pull him off to the side, and I’m like, ‘You haven’t studied any film this week, have you?’ He dropped his eyes. So he only got a few snaps that game because it’s my job to put somebody out there that’s going to win 85-90% of the time, and I couldn’t trust him or his preparation that week to do that.”
Hoping that Smith would get the message, Paup was disappointed to find out two weeks later when the team began its preparation for a game against NDSU that Smith, who was supposed to start in that game and whose parents were planning on attending, hadn't gotten the message.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, you still haven't learned your lesson yet, have you?’ He looked at me again with his eyes dropped and I said, ‘You haven't watched any film this week, have you?’ Again, he dropped his eyes and he only got maybe three or four plays in that game,” Paup said.
This time the message finally sunk in.
“The next day we come in to watch film and Elerson is sitting in the second row fuming,” Paup said.
Although he could feel Smith’s cold glare on him, Paup went about running the film session, as usual, commending the process by going around the room and asking each player how he thought he had performed in the previous week’s game.
Paup, however, purposely saved Smith for last.
“He’s sitting there, and you can tell he’s both pissed and hurt,” Paup said, noting how as each of Smith’s teammates spoke about their opportunities, the emotions began to bubble over. “When his turn came, he just let it all out, and I’m like, ‘Yes! Finally it hurts!’ because when it hurts, you're going to do something about it.”
From that moment on, Smith began to take his craft more seriously and would study with Paup to learn the game's finer points that he might not have previously known.
And Paup—who during his playing career benefitted from picking the brains of Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Reggie White—was only too happy to coach Smith up on the little nuances of the game that could take his performance to the next level.
“All of a sudden,” Paup said, his voice filled with pride, “he started to take off.”
Video courtesy of UNI Athletics.
A Breakout Season
After finishing the 2018 season with 19 tackles (11 solo), 10.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, and one forced fumble, Smith, who embraced film study and was more open to coaching than ever before, became virtually unstoppable in 2019.
His final stat line that season included 63 tackles, 21.5 for a loss,14.0 sacks, and five forced fumbles.
But what people don’t know is that Smith racked up those numbers by “taking one for the team” by switching from left defensive end to right defensive end.
“When you go from a right-handed stance to a left-handed stance, it's tough to make the transition,” Paup said. “So we asked him at the beginning of the '19 season to go from left end to right end.”
Predictably Smith struggled at first with the change.
“When you don't have great technique, it turns out bad because your steps are wrong, your hands are wrong and your hips are wrong and you get dominated,” Paup said.
“It takes a long time to groom a technique so that you can become consistent and then dominate your opponent. Technique can take a while to build, so when you're dead tired in the third and fourth quarter, a lot of times you fall back on your habits. And if your opponent is good, he’s going to dominate you if you’re not using proper technique. That’s what was happening with Elerson.”
Undeterred, Smith kept working at his craft with Paup to get his technique down, and sure enough, things began to click for him.
“In the final third of the ‘19 season, we finally got him out of the four-point stance, and he finally started using his left hand. And if you watch the last game in 2019, the playoff game against James Madison University, he was starting to figure it out and he did a great job with that.”
A Work in Progress
UNI’s 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Paup with some unfinished business as far as continuing to foster Smith’s development.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance. Once the season was canceled, Smith decided to turn his attention to getting ready for the draft back home in Minneapolis, where he found a trainer. Having been invited to the Senior Bowl, Smith moved his training to Exos in Arizona before putting on a solid showing in Mobile.
Paup kept in touch with Smith to make sure he was working out and staying in shape. But he sounded a little down about not having had a chance to help Smith with taking his game to the next level, an assignment that will now fall to Giants defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
“If they ask him to be a right end, he's got to finish polishing off his left-handed technique or left-handed stance,” Paup said.
“The other thing he needs to do, which I was going to work with him if he would have come back last year, is to beat people in a phone booth. He's got the speed and a lot of times, all he would do is try to run by people well.
"So you watch him on film, and you're like, ‘As an offensive tackle, I can't stay with him because he’s too fast, but if I can just stay on the inside of him and use my arms to just push him a little bit higher and wider, the quarterback can step up and get the ball off.’
“(Smith) needs to be able to work with a little more violence, and come straight at people, beat them, and then he'll have the corner and he'll be able to use his explosion to finish off a play.”
Then there is becoming acclimated to the speed of the NFL game, which is nothing like what a player experiences at the college level.
“It's hard to replicate the physicality and the steps, and the technique,” Paup admitted. “But he's been working diligently. There are a lot of things that you can work on, like getting your steps down your stance and all those things in your hands—you can work on that to a certain degree. But it might take a little while to knock the rust off and to really show what he can do.”