By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — Marcus Smith found out something early when he arrived his freshman year at Louisville. The highly touted quarterback out of Hardaway High School in Columbus, Ga. discovered defense through the lack of a basic essential: He couldn’t throw.
The 6-foot-3, 252-pound outside linebacker made the transition from quarterback to defensive end, with a stop at linebacker in between for the Cardinals, which translated into Smith being the Eagles’ first-round selection in the NFL Draft, and 26th overall, Thursday night.
The Eagles obtained the pick from the Cleveland Browns, along with the 83rd overall pick in the third round, in exchange for the Eagles’ 22nd pick (which the Browns used to select quarterback Johnny Manziel).
It’s been an interesting journey for Smith, who was behind two senior quarterbacks under then-Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who’s now the head coach at Texas.
“I wasn’t getting a lot of reps, and I wasn’t doing too well throwing the ball,” recalled Smith, who received the Eagles’ call while with his family at a Louisville sports bar. “Coach Strong asked me if I wanted to play defense, so I told him I’ll do whatever it takes to get on the field. He put me on defense, and in the second practice, because we had a two-a-day that day, and I never went back.
“I really think I haven’t reached my full potential yet. I know I have a lot of stuff to work on, and once I get around the right people, especially the ones that can teach me the things that I need to know, I think I can be the player that I want to be.”
After moving from offense to defense, Smith said it took him a year to fully adopt a defensive player’s mentality. He had a feeling he could be an early-second round pick or possibly go in the third round. He added that he has experience in a 3-4 defensive scheme, which he played his junior and senior years at Louisville. Sometimes he played with his hand in the dirt, but he also possesses the versatility to drop back into coverage.
He was projected by some prognosticators to be a second-round pick, and as high as a third-round pick by others. Hardly anyone viewed him as a first-round choice.
But Chip Kelly has a reputation for thinking “outside the box.” This one may go outside the box, outside the state and a few light years outside what anyone thought the Eagles were going to do with their first-round pick.
The Eagles made a somewhat shocking move in selecting Smith with the 26th overall pick.
“He’s a big kid who’s transitioned to the outside linebacker position, he has a huge upside, is a very, very good athlete and is over 6-3,” Kelly said about Smith. “He has speed coming off the edge and we thought having a pass rusher was a big thing for us. I think a young kid to bring in behind Trent [Cole] and Connor [Barwin], those guys can teach him the ropes and bring him alogn and show him what we can do.
“His ceiling is very, very high. He’s a tough hard-nose football player, a little new to the position. It’s a similar situation to [last year’s first-round pick] Lane [Johnson] in terms of you get the guy that has a huge upside, because he hasn’t played the position that long.”
Kelly pointed out that the Cardinals played multiple defenses, having Smith with his hand on the ground and play standing up. Kelly feels Smith brings versatility, able to drop back into coverage, or rush the quarterback, a huge need for the Eagles.
Smith had a team-high 14.5 sacks in 2013. The Eagles need help at the edge and apparently this move was made to sure up that area.
As a senior, Smith emerged as one of the nation’s top pass rushers, playing in the weak American Athletic Conference (where Temple plays), which had only four of its 10 teams above .500. Of Smith’s 14.5 sacks in 2013, 10.5 came against AAC opponents. Smith did have two sacks in Louisville’s 36-9 victory over Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“I want to make an impact right away,” said Smith, who felt a down junior year hurt his draft status, viewing him as a one-year wonder. “I know that the coaches in Philly will train me up and get me ready. It was a 50-50 [split, rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage]. I feel that I’m very athletic and I feel like I could have went up where [Anthony Barr] went as far as my talent goes. But I know how the draft goes. All you have to do is get one team to love you.”
Apparently that one team was the Eagles.
NFL Draft First Round
1. Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE South Carolina
2. Rams (From Redskins): Greg Robinson, OT Auburn
3. Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB Central Florida
4. Bills (From Browns): Sammy Watkins, WR Clemson
5. Raiders: Khalil Mack, OLB Buffalo
6. Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT Texas A&M
7. Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR Texas A&M
8. Browns (From Vikings) Justin Gilbert, CB Oklahoma St.
9. Vikings (From Bills through Browns): Anthony Barr, OLB UCLA
10. Lions: Eric Ebron, TE North Carolina
11. Titans: Taylor Lewan, OT Michigan
12. Giants: Odell Beckham, WR LSU
13. Rams: Aaron Donald, DT Pittsburgh
14. Bears: Kyle Fuller, CB Virginia Tech
15. Steelers: Ryan Shazier, OLB Ohio St.
16. Cowboys: Zack Martin, OT Notre Dame
17. Ravens: CJ Mosley, ILB Alabama
18. Jets: Calvin Pryor, FS Louisville
19. Dolphins: Ja’Wuan James, OT Tennessee
20. Saints (From Cardinals): Brandin Cooks, WR Oregon St.
21. Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS Alabama
22. Browns (From Eagles): Johnny Manziel, QB Texas A&M
23. Chiefs: Dee Ford, DE Auburn
24. Bengals: Darqueze Dennard, CB Michigan St.
25. Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB TCU
26. Eagles (From Colts through Browns): Marcus Smith, LB Louisville
27. Cardinals (From Saints): Deone Bucannon, SS Washington St.
28. Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR Florida St.
29. Patriots: Dominique Easley, DT Florida
30. 49ers: Jimmie Ward, SS Northern Illinois
31. Broncos: Bradley Roby, CB Ohio St.
32. Vikings (From Seahawks): Teddy Bridgewater, QB Louisville
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.