JACKSONVILLE – The events of this past March meant much to Dawuane Smoot.
"I finally felt like I belonged," he said.
Smoot, who joined senior writer John Oehser for this week's O-Zone Conversation, said that was his mindset after re-signing with the Jaguars shortly after 2021 free-agency began – and understandably so. Signing a second NFL contract is a life-changing moment – and for the fifth-year defensive lineman, it was moment reached by working through adversity.
A third-round selection by the Jaguars in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smoot played a backup role as a rookie then was inactive for the first half of the 2018 season. He improved dramatically in 2019 and 2020, and his 11.5 sacks those two seasons led the Jaguars during that span.
Smoot decided late last season he wanted to re-sign with the Jaguars when he became a free agent in March. He kept wanting it when the team hired Urban Meyer as head coach – and in fact, that made him want it more.
"With the coaching change, there were a lot of things that were moving in Jacksonville," he said. "I really didn't know. When Urban came in, we had a month or so to try to get know each other. We just hit it off and I felt like it was the right place for me to be.
"The first day of free agency, I told my agent, "I want to stay, so whatever we have to do to make it happen …" That's what we did. That's why I'm here."
And it's why he has a place where he feels he belongs. Here's this week's O-Zone Conversation with Smoot:
Q: You said late last season – long before Meyer became coach and long before you knew anything about this new staff – that you wanted to return to the Jaguars. Why so strong in that feeling?
A: I love being here. I love the opportunity. I'm from the Midwest, so I love the hot weather. I love my house here as well. I didn't want to uproot my family. There were a whole bunch of different things that went though my mind at the time. I just felt like it was the right place for me to be.
Q: As much as you love the town, if the vibe hadn't been right with the team you wouldn't have stayed. What it is about the Jaguars and Meyer that made you want to stay?
A: He's putting everything in his power together to make sure the players are taken care of. He's making sure we have the best training facility, the best strength-and-conditioning staff. He makes sure everything's the best of the best. He told us that from the get-go, "If you don't have the best, tell me, give me six minutes and I'm going to have the best for you." I just really respect that and know he's going to take care of us. We're going to give him everything we can on the field. I'm excited about this year.
Q: Tell me about new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi.
A: We're all jacked up. Tosh just brings a whole different type of energy. He's a younger coach and he's with us the whole time. His energy level is right there with us. All of our guys are really young, so they have a whole bunch of youth energy. The days we've had on the field, I feel like we're working on things specifically for our position. The guys are loving all the fundamental work we're getting.
Q: How do you see your role in the defense moving forward?
A: I'm going to be more of an outside rusher. I'll be dropping [into coverage] here and there – but on base downs, I'll be more of an outside standup guy. On third down, I'll be moving inside like I usually do. Most of the time, I'll be on the open side away from the tight end.
Q: It's always been about versatility for you in the NFL. Sounds like that's still the case.
A: That's my game. That's how it always has been. I've always been a tweener. I've always been in the 270- 280-zone. I can get up to 290 if I have to. I can play two-gap if I have to. I can play four-I if have to. Whatever I can do, that's my niche. That's what it has been. I'm going to keep being versatile.
Q: Your road in the NFL hasn't always been easy. What did it mean to sign that second contract this offseason?
A: I finally felt like I belonged – after the last three or four years, knowing I barely touched the field at times. My first year I had a whole bunch of All-Pros in front of me. It was tough finding time on the field. When I finally did get on the field, I feel like I took advantage of opportunities. I just feel now that I've signed the contract and I'm in my fifth year, I'm being considered as a veteran. That's kind of weird. It goes fast. It feels like just yesterday I got drafted.
Q: It sounds as if you believe there's a lot more you can do.
A: Definitely. I'm still young. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface. I got my first start in four years last year, so I feel like I'm still raw. I haven't had that much time on the field. I feel like I have a lot more things I can do on the field.
Q: Tell me about this defense in general. Will it play to your strengths?
A: Absolutely. [Defensive Coordinator] Joe Cullen worked me out when I was coming into the draft and we really had a tight bond. I understood his style. It's a match made in heaven. When I saw he was the defensive coordinator it was like, "It's a no-brainer. I want to be here." I feel like I'm ready.
Q: Cullen spent 2010-2012 as the Jaguars' defensive line coach. What's he like as a coordinator?
A: He's super-serious when it's time to be on the field, but you can also joke with him. You can put your arm around him, joke with him and laugh with him. He's not as young as he used to be, but he's still got it.
Q: You're in the locker room; fans and media aren't. Give me the vibe right now of the defensive players.
A: I feel like there's a lot of excitement. It's a lot of younger guys, guys who are on the cusp and some guys who have been in and out of the NFL as well. There are guys trying to find their place. The great thing about it is we're all on the same level when it comes to talent, so it's a lot of competition right now. I just see every day in camp … it's about to be a dog fight for just a little bit of time on the field. Beside 2017, I've never had this much competition in one room. Now, it feels like everybody's on the same level. We don't even know who's going to start Day One. We'll see.
Q: You mentioned 2017. That was a loaded team at defensive line with Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler Jr. That's a tough group to compete with as a rookie…
A: (Laughing) Just trying to find my place was like, "Where am I going to play? I don't know if I'm going to play behind Calais. I don't know if I'm going to play behind Yann. Or Fowler." I didn't know. I felt like during my rookie and sophomore year I had to step back and say, "I'm going to learn from these guys. There are great players. They're not regular players, so anything I can take from these guys is going to be a plus." I definitely want to give a lot of credit to Yann because he taught me that cross chop everyday – everyday. I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to perfecting it. I'm just happy to have had that time to learn under him.
Q: You seem like you're in a good place right now? Are you? And if so, why?
A: Everything's going well. New team, new contract, new juice, new energy. The city's feeling it as well; we've got [quarterback] Trevor [Lawrence]. Everything's looking up for us right now. All we're doing right now is trying to get some culture here and work as hard as we can. We're working as hard as we can. We're killing ourselves every day on the field. We're trying to turn this around. I'm happy to see how everybody's doing right now. We're flying around. I'm going to be happy to see once the season comes.