D.J. Smith knows how to make a first impression.
Back in 2007, as a freshman at Appalachian State, Smith joined a team that had won back-to-back NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) titles and his competition at weakside linebacker was a senior and three-year starter named Cam Speer.
By midseason, the coaching staff had given Speer’s job to Smith. Even more impressive, the veteran starter would have given it to the youngster, too.
“It came to that time where I had to go talk to (Speer) and explain to him what I was going to have to do, because D.J. was more productive,” Appalachian State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dale Jones said. “So I brought him in the office and he looked at me and before I could even say anything, the kid said, ‘Coach, I know.’ D.J. was that good.”
Smith went on to lead Appalachian State to a third straight FCS title that year, kicking off a stellar four-year career that concluded with the Packers drafting him in the sixth round with the 186th overall pick.
That’s not to say Smith will stroll into Green Bay and immediately bump either of the incumbent starters at inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, down a notch on the depth chart.
It does say, however, that Smith won’t be intimidated by joining a championship outfit, and if there’s a way for him to make a contribution, he’s likely to find it.
“He’s such a football-savvy kid,” Jones said. “He’s probably the most intelligent football player I’ve ever been around.”
That’s a noteworthy statement considering Jones had just joined the Appalachian State staff back in 1996 when the school’s most famous football alum, Dexter Coakley, was a senior.
Coakley, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys, and Smith are the only players in Appalachian State history to compile more than 500 tackles in their careers.
“Could I compare them? Dexter was a faster kid than D.J. and D.J. is more physical, being 235 pounds,” Jones said. “D.J. is probably more complete, at this point.”
Working against Smith is the current labor situation, because he’s getting no minicamps or OTAs right now as he tries to make the jump from the FCS to the NFL.
Jones believes that Smith’s smarts will help him pick up Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme fairly quickly, as soon as he starts learning it, and that the leap in levels won’t be as big for Smith as it may appear.
As proof that Smith belongs, Jones points to Appalachian State’s games against Southeastern Conference powers Florida in 2010 and LSU in 2008. Smith recorded 14 tackles against the Gators and 11 against the Tigers and never appeared on tape to have been in over his head, something the Packers surely noticed as they studied Smith as well.
“He played as well against those guys, if not better, because of the competition,” Jones said. “The offensive linemen had trouble getting leverage on him and had trouble getting a good block on him, because he’s always in the right place. He looked like he definitely should be on the field.”
That’s where Smith hopes to find himself in Green Bay as well, wherever there’s a role for him.
Jones believes Smith would have been “dominant” at middle linebacker, but the team had better candidates for that spot than on the weak side, so Smith stayed put until injuries forced him to start a handful of games in the middle as a senior. In his first start there, he had 14 tackles, a sack and an interception he returned for a score.
“Being a smart football player can get you a long way,” Jones said. “I just think if he gets the opportunity, he’ll be somebody that will really shock people.”
For more feature stories on the 2011 draft class, click here.