By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — Marcus Smith looked like he was done. The Hardaway High offensive line had been holding up well that night against Upson Lee, when they suffered a breakdown—and left their quarterback, Smith, out in no-man’s land with three defenders closing fast.
Sensing the heat, Smith scrambled left, rolled back right, and seeing the over pursuit, scrambled left again in time to find a wide open receiver 50 yards down field.
Jeff Battles, just three games into his head coaching tenure at Hardaway, turned to his assistants on the sideline, shook his head in disbelief and smiled. He knew he had something special in Smith. The Hardaway staff also knew that, in time, Smith would eventually outgrow the quarterback position and become something a little more up front.
That winding road took the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Smith from quarterback at Louisville, to defensive line, to linebacker, a position the Eagles feel that they addressed by taking Smith with the 26th overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night.
“Marcus came up as a quarterback and he didn’t play any defense at all until college, but he was such a physical, tremendously athletic kid that we knew he could do something at the next level,” said Battles, who received character questionnaires from three teams, the Raiders, Chiefs and Eagles. “We thought he’d be moved to tight end in college, because he has wonderful hands and good speed.
“Passing wise, Marcus can throw the ball. Accuracy is what they were looking for at Louisville, because Marcus can throw the ball 70, 80 yards. He threw a 60-yarder for us as a senior. At the Louisville level, Marcus struggled with the accuracy of his throws.”
But then-Louisville coach Charlie Strong, now at Texas, felt Smith’s athleticism was too good to waste waiting behind future star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. So Strong took a chance and opted to put Smith on defense—a seismic shift, considering Smith never played defense.
“We moved Marcus all over the field to use his athleticism whenever we got into zone pressure, we would drop him,” Strong said. “Whenever I was looking for a mismatch, I moved him around to the mismatch, whether it was an offensive tackle or an offensive guard, we looked for the weakness in the offensive line where Marcus could beat a guy one-on-one. Our defense was centered around Marcus because of his speed.
“We felt really confident we could put Marcus anywhere. If a quarterback ever broke out of the pocket, Marcus could run him down. With his skill set, if I needed him in man coverage, we felt confident he could play a tight end or a running back.”
In his senior year, Smith had 18.5 tackles for losses for minus-124 yards and finished second in the nation in sacks with 14.5, 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.
“Even with our team at Louisville, I felt that people underestimated us,” Strong said. “We were 13-1 and we didn’t get any of the credit that we should have—and that means the players, too. That’s what happened with Marcus. This kid was a quarterback in high school. He was 6-3, maybe around 215, and he went to 255, 260 and he’s only going to get better. I look for players that give me an effort and know their assignments. Once he learns the Eagles’ system, he’ll make his game better and keep improving.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.