D'Anthony Smith smiled wide, because for Smith, smiles come easy.
The smile is about optimism and hope, because after missing his first two NFL seasons with different injuries of different degrees on different legs, Smith said he is healthy now.
But beneath the smile, there is a seriousness for the Jaguars' third-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft. The defensive tackle said he knows he's at a critical time in his NFL career, and he said he knows that while Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith believes in him there may be some fans who have . . .
Well, some of them might have forgotten.
And in that sense, Smith is in a very different situation than this time a year ago. A year ago, he was the defensive tackle who represented an extra draft pick, and who if he could recover from the Achilles injury that cost him his rookie season would make an already strong position deep and dominant.
"This year," Smith said, smiling, "it's like, 'Who is this guy?'"
He paused a moment.
"I have to reestablish everything," he added.
Maybe to the fans, that's true. To the Jaguars, it's different, because to the Jaguars Smith is still very much the player they liked enough coming out of Louisiana Tech to make him the No. 74 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft. A talented player, Smith impressed coaches and scouts during minicamp and during the early days of training camp before sustaining a torn Achilles.
If that was Smith's only injury, his story entering the Jaguars' off-season program that began this week at EverBank Field would be far different. And if that was Smith's only injury, he said maybe the only reason he would be trying so hard to get back to full strength would be himself, and his career.
But for Smith, there's another layer to his return, one that involves his loyalty to Smith the general manager and the Jaguars in general.
In the NFL, one injury and one missed season – even a rookie season – is one thing. Two can be perceived as a pattern, and sometimes can lead to a team losing confidence in a player.
Smith wasn't much worried about that last training camp. What he was worried about was returning to full health. That's something that's considered rare coming off of an Achilles injury, and he said early in camp he indeed played tentatively at times, thinking too much about the injury. Then, during the Jaguars' preseason victory over Atlanta, Smith said he hit full speed during a play, and for the first time, he wasn't thinking about the Achilles. At the end of the play, he jumped a pile of players.
"After that, I knew I was ready to go," Smith said.
The feeling lasted less than a week. In the preseason finale, Smith sustained what he calls a bizarre injury, tearing a toe ligament. Surgery was an option, but surgery would be more complicated than rest. Although Smith said it was known the toe likely would heal in about two-and-a-half months, the decision was made to place him on injured reserve.
For the briefest of moments following the decision, Smith said he was discouraged.
"Then I realized, he could have gone the other route," he said of Smith the general manager. "Just as fast as I went, 'OK . . .' he told me, 'I want you here.'''
Smith the defensive tackle said it was those words – Smith the general manager telling him he wanted him in Jacksonville and that the team needed him for the future – that helped him realize he remained solidly in the Jaguars' plans. Those were words. All fall, actions followed suit. Smith stayed in Jacksonville while on IR and Smith said Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen continued in some ways to coach him as if he was active – minus the on-field yelling, of course. Throughout the season, Smith attended defensive line meetings and game plan meetings. Each week, Smith watched tape and analyzed players and met with Cullen individually.
"Each Friday, we had our own little meeting," he said. "I feel more involved this year."
Smith was asked how he approached this season – pressure, excitement, enthusiasm?
"Last year, it was a lot more pressure," he said. "I thought I had to come back and prove myself. This year, Gene has put all the confidence in me I needed. I'm just ready to play."
Smith said he values that support, and said he knows not every team would still believe in a relatively unproven player.
"I just hope I come through for them this year – I will come through for them this year," he said. "That's the big thing I want to do this year is show I was worth the draft pick that he used on me."
Smith spoke confidently throughout an extensive interview this week. He said he feels 100 percent, and has since pretty much last November, when the ligament between his toes healed. He said while the Achilles was thought by many to be career-threatening he was ahead of schedule throughout that rehab and he said that injury is no longer a worry. The toe injury? He said that was never a long-term concern and when he was asked about upcoming organized team activities and on-field work to prepare for next season, he replied, "hitting the ground running, hitting the ground running."
Smith said while it may be hard to believe, he never was deflated during his first two seasons. He also said as the off-season program begins, he is entering it far more relaxed than last season.
"It's a humbling experience," he said. "I know I said the same thing last year, but it's different than last year. Last year, I was like, 'I've got to do this, I've got to do this.' Now, I'm like, 'OK, they know me.' Now, it's time to put what they know about me on the field and produce and show them I was worth the draft pick they used on me."
And sometime in the next few weeks, the Jaguars will go on the field, and come that time, he will do something not so perfect. When that happens, Cullen won't be in a meeting room, and he'll be using a slightly louder voice.
And in a very real sense, Smith won't mind a bit.
"That's when I'll know, 'I'm here, I've arrived, I'm back," he said.
Smith thought about that moment, and he smiled.