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Focus on the Future: Telvin Smith

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(This is the first of a series of stories to run this month on young Jaguars players who began developing in 2014 as the future of the franchise.)

JACKSONVILLE – Telvin Smith discovered a few things the last few months.

One thing the Jaguars' outside linebacker said he absolutely, positively discovered throughout his rookie season was that when it came to football, he still had quite a bit to learn.

"I didn't know as much about the game as I thought I did," he said with a smile.

Another thing he learned:

He absolutely, positively can play at the professional level.

The second part is critical to the Jaguars' defense, because Smith in the second half of his 2014 rookie season emerged not only as a starting weak-side linebacker but as an impact player capable of making momentum-turning, game-changing plays.

"If he plays like he did for 16 games like he did the last five, he will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player," Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said shortly after the season.

High praise, but Smith (6-feet-3, 218 pounds) for most of his rookie season was decidedly praiseworthy – enough so that preseason questions about his size waned considerably by season's end.

"You would always like a guy to get bigger and stronger, especially a young guy like that, but he's proven that he can play at this level with how he is right now," Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich said late in the season.

Babich was asked if Smith indeed can be a long-term, every-down starter.

"Oh yeah, there's no doubt," Babich said, adding, "He has a bright, bright future."

Smith actually showed playmaking ability from the start of his rookie season – and as far back as the offseason and training camp it was evident he had the speed and athleticism to play in the NFL. Coaches quickly moved him into the No. 1 nickel linebacker role, and he was on the field throughout his rookie season in passing situations, starting 10 of the last 12 games.

When the team released Otto linebacker Dekoda Watson during the Week 11 bye week, weak-side backer Geno Hayes moved to the Otto and Smith moved into the starting weak-side role.

Smith – the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in a Week 7 victory over Cleveland in which he defensed two passes, had an interception and forced a fumble – finished the season with 99 tackles, second on the team. He had a career-high 16 tackles (11 solos) in the regular-season finale in Houston and had 31 tackles over the last two games of the season.

"I think that he's going to do nothing but get better as far as being a young player," Babich said. "We really like what we see from Telvin Smith as far as being productive and being able to play at this level."

And while questions to and about Smith often focused on whether he was big enough to play linebacker at the NFL level, Smith said he never worried much over the issue.

"I don't care if I step out there at 205 or whatever I step out there at," he said. "If I step out there on the field, you best believe I'm going to make plays and give it all I've got. The size – I let other people talk about."

To hear Smith and others around the Jaguars tell it, they believe he will add size and strength, although it's not an overwhelming issue. And it's certainly not a crisis.

"I'm going to work on it; it's going to be something I definitely focus on, and try to enhance and get better at," Smith said. "It's something that can make you better, and I'm trying to reach success. That's a step toward it, so it's something I want to work on."

And while it's not accurate to say Smith surprised Jaguars officials and coaches with his ability to play at his size, it is right to say his ability to do so impressed them.

"Telvin is an instinctive player that has the ability to make plays and I think I say this weekly: for a lean guy he's a lot more physical," Babich said. "He doesn't get banged around in there like you would think if you look at him on the hoof. If you look at him he looks really lean, but he gets in there and he plays physical and he's fast. … I don't even know exactly what his weight is or whatever, but obviously he's going to mature and he's going to get bigger and stronger.

"I've never not seen that happen with a rookie as far as getting bigger and stronger."

Adding size for a young player can take time, and for many, it occurs over the first few years of a career. In the short-term, Smith said while he felt he learned much as a rookie about how to learn and study, he can still improve in that area. He also said he wants to improve getting off blocks and getting to the ball more quickly, and also said he wants to play tighter in zone coverage and get into zone coverage drops more quickly.

"There's a lot I'll be able to work on to get better," he said.

Overall, Smith said maybe his biggest takeaway as a rookie was he indeed can play in the NFL, something he believed was true but learned for sure during a season in which he continued to learn, improve and keep impressing just about everyone around him.

"I feel like I've gotten off to a good start," he said. "I feel like I made a pretty good step. I just want to keep going, help the team get better and have a better record – get to the playoffs, win a Super Bowl. Obviously, that's where it's at."

A busy 2014 for linebacker Telvin Smith.

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