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Clearing a hurdle


The moment came and went as D'Anthony Smith hoped.

Actually, it went better than he hoped.

Smith, a Jaguars defensive tackle who missed his rookie season last year with an Achilles injury, worked on Wednesday in a sand pit drill.

It was a critical moment, Smith said, and there were nerves. The goal of the drill: test his ability to plant on the injured area. If there was anything about which he was unsure during an extensive, long rehabilitation, it was that.

But on Wednesday, the moment arrived.

"They told me, 'It's time to do it,''' Smith said the following day. "I did it and it felt good."

Smith, who will enter what will technically be his second NFL season but in fact will very much be his first, considered the moment one of the most important tests of a relatively short NFL career.

"It was a big hump for me," Smith said. "Hopefully, it's downhill from there."

For Smith, who said he believes he is about a month or month and a half from being back to 100 percent in a football sense, the moment was the latest – and among the most satisfying -- in one of the most difficult periods of his life or career.

Smith, who played collegiately at Louisiana Tech, impressed coaches and personnel officials upon his arrival with the Jaguars, and entered training camp optimistic about the season.

Three days into camp, he sustained the Achilles injury.

Smith said not only had he never sustained such an injury, he never had been through anything particularly close.

"It was a humbling experience," he said. "Coming out of the draft, coming into camp, it's typical your head is going to be a little big. This brought me down to earth real quick. The No. 1 thing I learned from it is, 'Do not take this for granted.' As fast as you got here is as fast as you can leave."

When the Jaguars open the 2011 season, it will have been nearly two years since he played.

The last time he went so long without playing?

"Fourth grade," he said, laughing. "I was too big to play with the little kids and too small for the big kids. There's a lot of built-up anxiousness right now."

Though Smith did not play as a rookie, he said he has learned much in nearly a year with the team. The process of learning how to work, how to be a professional and the level of work and focus needed, is an oft-overlooked part of the NFL acclimation process, and Smith said that process has matured him immeasurably.

"I'm pretty much approaching last season as a red-shirt year," Smith said. "I didn't get to red-shirt in college, so this pretty much felt like that. I got to sit down and not be overwhelmed by the things it takes to be a pro, but actually slowly digest what was going on.

"In college, you maybe put in an hour or two at the most. In the league, pretty much all that time you were in school? You're studying film now."

And although he has yet to play an NFL regular- or pre-season snap, Smith said he participated in enough off-season work to realize he can play at the NFL level. The competition he faces daily in practice – Uche Nwaneri, Vince Manuwai – showed him as much, he said.

"Those guys are some of the best guards in the league," he said. "Going against them every day gives me the confidence I can go out and play every Sunday."

If he can, and if he can play at the level at which many project him, Smith could become part of the core of an improving young defensive line. Rookie Tyson Alualu started 16 games as a rookie, and second-year veteran Terrance Knighton also started 16 games. The duo formed the core of the interior of the line a year ago, but in the NFL teams need a rotation of quality defensive tackles and ends.

Many believe Smith could be a part of that core.

"I embrace it with open arms," Smith said. "I like this type of pressure, because it gives me something to aim for. I want to be part of that group that puts the Jaguars on the map as a defense."

And although last season was difficult, Smith said he remains optimistic about the long-term and immediate future. The Jaguars, he said, are building something solid. It's something to which he wants to contribute, and to do so in a significant way.

"I would love to be a part of it," he said. "I just looked at my injury as not something to be down about. The Lord wouldn't put me through it if he couldn't bring me through it. I just look forward to what He has in store for me for the future."

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