Bottle the “old dog, new trick” cliché. It doesn’t really apply if the new trick that allegedly is being taught isn’t totally a new, perplexing trick.
Thus, the move from defensive end to outside linebacker for nine-year Saints veteran
“It really hasn’t been that hard of a transition,” Smith said. “The hardest part is probably the individual part, with (linebackers coach) Joe Vitt, just him working the (linebackers). Overall, I look at the position as an extension from defensive end. I have some drop responsibility but most of the time I’m doing the same things I’ve always done.
“Typically, I’m not going to be covering the ‘X’ or the ‘Z’ receiver. I’m going to stick with mostly the tight ends and running backs.”
That’s not to suggest it totally is a glove-on-hand fit. Smith, after all, has played all of his 139 NFL games at defensive end, 120 of them starts. To suggest that he seamlessly, and uneventfully, was prepared for the transition probably wouldn’t give proper credit to players who have played the position and studied the craft for years.
“I have to do coverages, I have to do linebacker drills, I do a little special teams now,” he said. “So I do a lot of different things than I was doing the previous nine years.”
But Smith, who dropped 10 pounds in order to help ease the move and said he now carries around his rookie weight (268 to 270 pounds) from 2004, doesn’t at all sound lost or intimidated when discussing his position and role.
He is, in fact, working with the first unit, lining up in both outside linebacker positions (Jack and Sam) according to the play that has been called.
“Will’s doing an excellent job,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “I know he’s had his hand in the dirt his whole life (as a defensive lineman), but some of those guys make great outside linebackers in a 3-4.
“Coverage is coming along pretty good – he works hard at it. So he’s got a big chance to do well there and improve. The nice thing is, you’re going to be able to get an edge set with Will Smith, that’s for sure.”
Guaranteed, New Orleans also always will get professionalism.
Smith has been nothing if not that during his career, which has seen him register 67.5 sacks (fourth in team history) and 19 forced fumbles.
That helps explain why, at the behest of his coaches, he dropped weight in order to be better equipped to handle the responsibilities of the position.
“I’m looking a lot sleeker, back at my rookie weight,” he joked. “They wanted me to lose some weight and it’s paying off. We had the hard conditioning test (when the team reported last Thursday) and losing the weight helped me have a great time, and doing a lot of running that we’re doing in practice and a lot of different stuff that I’m not used to, I think losing the weight helped me a lot.”
Here’s what else should help: Ryan, who has been an NFL defensive coordinator for nine years and an NFL assistant coach for 15 total seasons, previously has seen the transition made from defensive end to outside linebacker.
He was linebackers coach in New England from 2000-03, a time during which defensive end Mike Vrabel made the switch and improved from 3, to 4.5, to 9.5 sacks. And he was defensive coordinator in Dallas in 2011-12, where linebackers DeMarcus Ware (a college defensive end at Troy) and Anthony Spencer (a defensive lineman at Purdue) combined to harass opposing quarterbacks as rush linebackers. Spencer had a career high 11 sacks last season, and Ware had a combined 31 sacks in the two seasons.
“DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer both were defensive ends, play outside linebacker. They’ve done pretty good,” Ryan said. “I know how to coach.
“Mike Vrabel was a guy that was always a lineman. When we got him in New England he started at outside linebacker, he did pretty good. He had double digit sacks and we won Super Bowls with him. So I think I know what we’re doing. I know I do – I could pretend I don’t, but I know I do.”
And Ryan figures he knows that Smith can do the job.
“Will Smith can do it,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot more mentally to the position but physically, it’s a lot similar to what (the defensive ends) have been doing.”