IT WAS a simplemisunderstanding, in Andre Smith's mind. Admittedly out of shape and overweightafter his junior season, the All-America left tackle from Alabama and 2008Outland Trophy winner had decided he wouldn't do drills with other draftprospects at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, instead banking on theCrimson Tide's pro day 2 ½ weeks later to impress scouts. He told as much tothe media and to teams with which he interviewed on the Friday of the combine,and the next morning boarded a plane to Atlanta.
This is an article from the March 23, 2009 issue
Once in Georgia,Smith, 22, headed to Ropeman's Fitness, the gym where he works out underrenowned trainer Ty (Ropeman) Felder. As the 6'4", 325-pound Smith preparedfor his final set of sit-ups, a gym employee asked him about being AWOL—theterm that combine organizers used back in Indy when announcing his absence fromLucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Smith hadn't realized he was expected to remainat the combine until his fellow offensive linemen were done with theirworkouts.
His departureimmediately provoked questions about his judgment and maturity, especially inlight of his suspension from the 2009 Sugar Bowl, reportedly for issues relatedto improper contact with an agent, and his decision not to work out in Indy."My reaction was, 'Wow,'" Smith says. "Then it was, 'Hmmm.' I was alittle surprised."
Over the next fewweeks Smith trained seven days a week, including three times daily from Mondaythrough Saturday. He split his time among Felder for conditioning, 13-year NFLoffensive lineman Tony Jones for position drills and Olympic relay championChryste Gaines for speed work.
On March 11, proday for 10 Alabama draft prospects, Smith pulled up to a side entrance at thefootball complex in Tuscaloosa in a black Cadillac Escalade ESV. He emergedwearing a sweat suit and a ready-to-go expression. "It's aonce-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.
Inside thefacility, more than 50 NFL coaches, scouts and execs looked on as Smith ranthrough a battery of drills. While he performed well in position and agilitytests, he did only 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, broad-jumped7'10" and had a vertical jump of 25 inches. His 40-yard-dash time wasaround 5.3. None of those numbers would have placed him among the top offensivetackles at the combine. Worse, though, he removed his shirt at his weigh-in andbefore running the 40. While that might not have been an issue for a sleekwideout, the look did not flatter Smith. "He never should have donethat," says one scout. "The guy has an ugly body. There's no other wayto say it."
That eveningSmith described his workout as "outstanding." No one else would go thatfar. If the goal had been to change the tone of the conversation about hisdraft status, to repair the damage done by his walkout at the combine, Smithdid not succeed, certainly not to the extent he'd wished. Now, as NFLdecision-makers prepare for the April 25--26 draft, they must reconcile Smith'sthree years as a starter at a top college program, the last as reputedly thebest lineman in the country, with what's transpired since then. Which imageswill sway them more: the game tapes of Smith dominating SEC opposition, or thefootage of him running the 40 with his shirt off?
SMITH'SCOLLEGIATE success is best reflected in his sack totals: Over three seasons heallowed only seven. And it's not as if he played against inferior competition.The SEC had five defensive ends drafted in the first two rounds in 2007 and'08: Derrick Harvey, Quentin Groves, Jamaal Anderson, Jarvis Moss and TurkMcBride. In an October matchup against Tennessee's defense—anchored by endRobert Ayers, who could be a high-round pick in this year's draft—Alabama putup 366 yards of offense, including 178 rushing, in a 29--9 victory. Ayers didget a hit on Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson, but Smith says he pulled upon the play because he thought Ayers had jumped the snap. When no offside flagwas thrown, he barked at Ayers and told him what was to come. Says Smith,"He had a target on him for the remainder of the game."
Said Crimson Tidecoach Nick Saban of Smith after that performance, "It is unusual to see aguy that size who has that balance and body control. You never see him fallingdown, never see him off balance, and he's got a lot of power. You might see apowerful guy, but he's clumsy. And then you have all the guys who have greatfeet but no power. You don't get that rare combination of a guy who has allthose things."
Several generalmanagers scoffed at speculation that Smith could fall past the middle of thefirst round or out of it altogether. With Jason Smith of Baylor and Virginia'sEugene Monroe projected to be drafted in the top five, teams next in line thatare looking for a tackle—including the Bengals (picking sixth), 49ers (10th)and Bills (11th)—will be plenty tempted by Alabama's Smith. "All I can sayis that someone will get a steal if he does fall," says one coach whoseteam selects in the bottom half of the top 10. "I hope he's there whenwe're on the clock, because I know we'd take him."
There's anundistinguished history of teams redoing their draft boards after watchingworkout warriors in shorts. Never mind that such players sometimes fail to liveup to expectations once the pads are on; or that players who didn't test well(Jerry Rice, Anquan Boldin, Jeff Saturday) starred once in uniform.
Smith could wellfall into the latter category. He has a disarming smile and a quick wit off thefield, but on it he's a mauler with functional strength, the long arms to keeppass rushers at bay and the agility to get to the second level and take onlinebackers. Joe Pendry, a former NFL assistant who was Smith's position coachthe past two seasons, raved about Smith on pro day, citing his work ethic,leadership and tenacity. Pendry told one scout that Smith may have more upsidethan Redskins Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels.
Even so, there isSmith's youth and inexperience to consider. He grew up in Birmingham, attendedcollege an hour's drive away in Tuscaloosa and rarely traveled beyond thosepoints except with the team. While dining on seafood gumbo, shrimp ceviche andsurf-and-turf sushi rolls last week at Chuck's Fish, a popular restaurant onthe outskirts of campus, he asked a California native if the state is really ascool as he had heard.
He has a naivetéabout him that teams could find charming ... or alarming, considering the moneyhe would command as a high first-round pick. Fame and fortune are known magnetsfor opportunists, and privately some teams wonder how long it will take Smithto learn life's lessons—and whether those lessons would be as painful for theteam that picks him as they might be for him. Smith is universally regarded asa good kid, but he raised another red flag at his pro day when his guestsincluded 30 family members, three trainers, a publicist and his agent.
"That's asmuch a problem as anything," says one G.M. picking in the top 10."Nobody's questioning the guy's character; I haven't heard anybody say thisguy is a jerk. But he's got to take charge, because once he gets drafted, thesepeople aren't going to magically disappear. He needs to take hold of hislife."
Smith comes froma strong family. He grew up in church on Sundays and had biblical proverbsinstilled in him by his mother the rest of the week. He doesn't flinch at theshots being taken at him. He has never felt overmatched on the football fieldand doesn't expect that to change once he's drafted. "I want to be the bestoffensive lineman to ever play football, to ever strap them on," he says."I feel like I can be the best. It's bold, but that's how I feel. I'm notbeing cocky or arrogant. It's just how I feel about myself."
The goal for himis to convince others to feel the same way.
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