Smith Learning the Ropes
Saturday, June 6, 2009

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Jason Smith earned his recreation and leisure studies degree from Baylor in May of 2008. But make no mistake, his education is ongoing.

In the whirlwind that is the buildup to the NFL Draft, including the scouting combine, the senior bowl and countless pro days, rare is the opportunity for a young player to come up for air.

And once the player is draft, it doesn’t get any easier. Nobody knows that better than Smith, who along with his Rams teammates, is now just six organized team activities away from finally putting a cap on his first NFL offseason.

In Smith’s case, part of the education that’s occurring on the field and in the meeting rooms is coming from a somewhat unlikely source: his competition.

While Smith is getting plenty of help from the coaching staff and other linemen, Adam Goldberg, the player who Smith will likely eventually replace in the starting lineup at right tackle, has been among Smith’s most ardent supporters.

Goldberg, who is well respected by teammates and coaches for his tremendous work ethic and intelligence, has left no stone unturned in helping Smith develop.

“A lot of the things are just linemen stuff – the balancing and knowing the playbook as far as different protections,” Smith said. “Three-step, Five-step. Quick sets, drop sets. A lot of stuff. And Goldberg is helping me understand everything.”

“I know that Adam Goldberg’s a great guy. He’s a great leader on and off the field. He talks to all us rookies about things we need to know as far as being productive and staying on the good side of the coaches.”

As the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, there’s a certain amount of expectations that have long since been heaped on Smith’s shoulders. That’s high end real estate to take any player and offensive tackles selected that high have names like Pace, Ogden and Jones.

Those players were so talented and polished that the teams drafting them immediately inserted them into the starting lineup and left them on an island to tango with some of the best pass rushers the league had to offer.

So far, at least, it doesn’t appear that approach will be duplicated with Smith. In the organized team activities and pair of minicamps Smith has participated in, he’s worked exclusively with the second team.

That’s part of a philosophy coach Steve Spagnuolo believes in as far as not throwing rookies into the fire before they’re ready and one that Smith completely understands.

“That’s football,” Smith said. “Nothing’s given to you when you’re on the football field. The great thing about being an offensive lineman is I understand that. There’s a lot of work that has to be done in order for me to, No. 1, be a part of this team. And then No. 2, just to take the next step in whatever it takes for me to be a productive person.”

At his first minicamp in May, Smith started his young football career at right tackle. Many presumed he was drafted to start out on the left side but with Alex Barron already moved there earlier in the offseason and Smith’s run blocking prowess, Spagnuolo decided to get his first look at Smith on the right side with the second unit, behind Goldberg.

In the time since, Smith stayed on the right side most of the time but has in the past week started getting his repetitions with the second unit on the left side. His flexibility hasn’t even been limited to that, as he’s even taken some snaps at guard before the start of some practices.

That’s one area in which Goldberg has plenty of expertise. Goldberg was the only player in the league to start a game at four line positions in 2008.

“I’m understanding my playbook, but as an offensive lineman you have to know every position on the offensive line,” Smith said. “That’s the great thing about what they’re doing – I’m learning all the positions. I’m just kind of excited that the guys are grabbing me and showing me the ropes.”

That’s all a part of building up the ability to help out at a variety of positions. Spagnuolo says he’s been impressed with how Smith is learning across the board and the way his young tackle works on and off the field.

“You know, he’s versatile,” Spagnuolo said. “He doesn’t blink at all when he goes on either side or we give him something new. He’s a tremendous worker and the guy is a respectful guy. He gets it. That’s the best thing I can say is he gets it. He’s young but he gets it, which is important.”

Flip flopping between left and right tackle would seem to be a fairly ordinary task from the outside but Smith says there’s more dexterity involved than many would think.

Adding to the moving around is the fact that Smith also must learn to grasp an NFL offense, adjust to the speed of the players he’s blocking and adapt to playing with his hand in the ground on a more regular basis, something he didn’t do at Baylor.

Smith has no preference on where he plays so long as he gets the opportunity to earn a position.

“On the right side you take the kicking with your right foot,” Smith said. “Your right hand’s down. You’re on the right side of the offensive line. Everything’s different because everything’s predominantly right. And then on the left side everything’s left. It’s two different positions, but overall it’s the same responsibilities – block for the quarterback.”

Because Smith is such a likable and well adjusted young player, it’s been easy for veterans such as Goldberg and Barron to step in and help him learn the ropes.

Smith sits next to Goldberg in meetings and never hesitates to ask any questions about the subject matter when something happens. Goldberg says it’s hard not to want to help someone with such a passion for the game and getting better.

“He’s going to be a great player,” Goldberg said. “It’s really reassuring and it’s good when you see a guy come in and he’s really highly touted and about to be very highly paid and it’s nice to see a guy who takes his job seriously, takes great notes, asks great questions and works extremely hard on and off the field. I have nothing but the highest praise for the young man so far.”

With this phase of the offseason nearly complete and his first NFL training camp looming in the not so distant future, Smith has plenty of work ahead of him. The Rams still haven’t been in full pads yet and it’s hard to evaluate any player, especially an offensive lineman, without full gear.

Smith says he doesn’t worry about that and is trying to remain focused on the task at hand, another area in which he credits Goldberg.

“I’ve learned now that any little wrong thing you do the other guy will capitalize and you’ll look bad,” Smith said. “Obviously, it’s still a great atmosphere to be here and this team is here working hard and diligent everyday. And everyday I’m learning how to be a professional.”

The lessons have already been plentiful but they’ve only just begun.