Football / Sports

Eagles' draftee Marcus Smith making transition from passer to pass rusher

PHILADELPHIA -- Marcus Smith was a 6-foot-3, 210-pound high school quarterback when he attended Florida's football camp in 2009. He intrigued Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong -- but not because of his arm.

"I knew he wasn't a quarterback," said Strong, the current Texas coach who coached Smith at Louisville, "but I knew he was something."

That something was a Louisville pass rusher, and eventually an Eagles first-round pick. This was the second straight year that the Eagles drafted a converted quarterback: 2013 first-round pick Lane Johnson also started his college career as a quarterback before finishing as an offensive tackle.

Smith's transformation from passer to pass rusher remains ongoing. The Eagles' decision-makers and Strong gushed about Smith's upside. The switch started during Louisville's preseason camp in 2010, when Strong persuaded Smith to give up his preferred position.

There were two seniors in front of Smith on the depth chart. Smith's repetitions were limited. And when he threw, he didn't help his case.

"I was throwing some balls in the dirt," Smith admitted Friday.

Strong approached Smith about converting to defense after a morning practice. Smith said he would do whatever it takes to play. By the afternoon session, Smith was a strong-side linebacker.

"The rest is history," Smith said.

It was also part of Strong's plan. The coach was willing to try to Smith at quarterback, but he knew Smith's future came on defense. The raw attributes that attracted the Eagles to Smith were present -- a rare combination of size and speed, the long arms and the required explosiveness.

"That's why I brought him in," Strong said. "I knew we had a really good athlete."

Smith had not played defense since Pop Warner ball, but he was willing to switch. He became realistic about his quarterback skills. It also proved fortuitous when eventual first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater arrived the next season to quarterback the Cardinals.

"I didn't like how I was playing quarterback at the time," Smith said."I didn't like how nothing that I was doing was going right. Maybe it was time for me to do a change-up anyway."

Smith had the body for defense, and he continued building that physique. He walked into Louisville's doors at 217 pounds. He graduated on Saturday at 255 pounds.

But Smith did not yet possess the mentality for defense. That needed to be honed. Kentucky's Randall Cobb blew past Smith for a 51-yard score.

"It took me maybe a year and a half to get it, because I still had the quarterback 1/8sensibilities3/8," Smith said."Once I got that killer instinct, that's when I started playing really well."

He developed that instinct during offseason training sessions. The regimen included mat drills in which players wrestled. Smith needed to learn how to be "be very violent" before he could be successful.

"He's a guy who's willing to work," Strong said. "He's not a guy that you're going have to force to do anything. He's going to show up and be ready to go when it's time to go."

He was a reserve as a freshman, a part-time starter as a sophomore, and a full-time starter with four sacks as a junior. One of those sacks came against third-ranked Florida in a Sugar Bowl upset. He also made a critical sack on a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter of that game to preserve Louisville's 10-point lead.

Strong spoke to Smith about the NFL after that season, but Smith did not yet consider his professional prospects. He yearned for a distraction-free senior year and he built his stock throughout the autumn. Smith finished second in major college football with 141/2 sacks. One came on Oct. 5 at Temple. Three came the next week against Rutgers. He ended the season with two sacks against Miami.

"Some guys just get along with athleticism, but he has been coached, he has technique, he has some pass-rush moves," said Temple coach Matt Rhule, who voted for Smith as the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year. "I think the big thing is he's a physical force. He's got long arms, he's got length that you need, he has a great first step, he has power. So he has skill that translates to the next level, plus he's been coached."

Those attributes attracted the Eagles to Smith. The team needs pass rushers, and Smith has evolved into a quality one. It happened only after it became clear that he lacked a future as a passer.

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