By Ben Sullivan
When the Eagles drafted Louisville linebacker Marcus Smith with their first pick in May’s NFL draft, the local know-nothings were quick to jump and shout:
THEY DRAFTED HIM TO SOON!
CHIP KELLY DOESN’T KNOW WHAT HE’S DOING!
Even smart guys like Ray Didinger and Mike Missanelli were skeptical.
Most local grid-heads weren’t familiar with Smith since the Cards played a lot of games on Wednesday nights, and none of it matters, starting tonight.
The rookie first-round pick is eager to show he can improve the team’s pass rush, and he gets his first chance tonight in a preseason game at Chicago.
“I feel like I’ve made strides, so getting into a game situation is going to be another kind of challenge. I’ll be ready to go,” Smith said.
Smith switched from quarterback to linebacker his freshman year at Louisville when he was third on the depth chart and coach Charlie Strong asked the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder if he wanted to try defense.
Smith never looked back.
He played defensive end as a sophomore before going back to linebacker and thriving as a speed rusher on the outside. Smith had 14.5 sacks his senior season, prompting the Eagles to select him with the 26th pick.
“I was throwing some balls in the dirt,” Smith recalled. “Coach Strong came up to me and asked if I wanted to play on his defense? I told him I’ll do whatever it takes to get on the field. The rest is history.”
The selection of Smith in the first round was a surprise because many draft projections had him going in the second or third round. Even Smith said he expected to go later. But the Eagles view him as a perfect fit in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ 3-4 defense.
“Marcus is a very hard worker and a very intelligent guy and very athletic,” Davis said. “He cares a lot about the game. He’s picked it up fairly quickly and one of the biggest things that attracted us to him was that Louisville and Charlie Strong’s defense is a lot like ours, and the way they used him is a lot like the way we use our ‘Jack’ position. The only knock is that he doesn’t have much experience on the defensive side of the ball. So we see potential there for growth.”
Smith had a chance this week to get valuable tips from Kevin Greene, the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker who had 160 career sacks. Greene spent a few days in camp mentoring Philadelphia’s linebackers.
“He wants us to be violent in our movements and I like that,” Smith said. “That is something that I can incorporate into my game every day. I feel like I play that way. It came quickly to me after playing quarterback for my entire career. It’s part of what I do.”
Smith isn’t expected to start as a rookie, though he could push veteran Trent Cole for playing time. Smith also is getting reps at Conor Barwin’s spot at “Jack” linebacker.
The defending NFC East champion Eagles were 20th in the NFL in sacks last year with 37. Cole led the team with eight in his first year at linebacker after playing defensive end his entire career.
“He’s done a great job,” coach Chip Kelly said of Smith. “I’ve seen a steady improvement from him. I think he’s getting more comfortable. We’re excited about seeing where he progresses, but I think he’s handled it really well to be honest with you.”
Smith may have more athleticism than any of Kelly’s quarterbacks: Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. But don’t expect Kelly to try Smith in his high-powered offense.
Smith already has enough on his plate learning the defense.
“Putting the pieces together,” Smith said. “I want to go out there and compete and learn more about the game. There is so much to learn. I think I’m getting there.”