JACKSONVILLE – A new day dawned for Chris Smith Sunday, a day of opportunity.
Not that he was in any way happy about an injury to a player who is not only a teammate, but a friend. No way, no how.
Shoot, it wasn't until Sunday the second-year pass rusher realized his role had significantly changed because of the knee injury to Leo defensive end Andre Branch. Minutes into practice Sunday afternoon, Jaguars players broke into team groups at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields.
It was then Smith realized he was running with the first team.
"I was surprised," Smith said with a smile. "I was still thinking two or three or whatever, I guess."
Surprise, surprise …
Smith indeed is working with the ones. That's not to say he is responsible for the entire Leo pass-rushing position. That's not how the role works.
But with Branch out with a sprained medial collateral ligament for what the team is calling a "significant" amount of time, Head Coach Gus Bradley on Saturday said Smith – a sixth-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft – will work at the Leo spot on first and second downs. That's the team's base defensive package.
Leos Chris Clemons and Ryan Davis will continue playing in the team's three-Leo lightning package in passing situations, and Bradley said those two players also will get repetitions on first and second downs.
But Smith's role absolutely will increase, which is why Bradley smiled Sunday in his press conference when a reporter noted it appeared Smith would be "OK" in the role.
"Hopefully, he's better than OK in there," Bradley said with a laugh.
The Jaguars need Smith to be at least OK. If there has been an area of concern defensively during the preseason, it has been the pass rush. Bradley said while he believes the team can figure ways to generate pressure on third down, getting enough pressure when teams pass on first and second down to force turnovers indeed is a concern.
"I think that's legit," Bradley said after a Preseason Week 3 loss to the Lions Friday.
Smith working with the first team is about more than the pass rush. Bradley on Sunday talked extensively about Smith, mentioning that while Smith arrived for this past spring's offseason program "a little heavy," he quickly lost the weight and has shown better pass rush during training camp.
"I think that needs to transfer into games," Bradley said. "He's a guy that has affected the quarterback a couple times in games, so that part we like."
Bradley also said the team likes Smith's strength at the point of attack, which is key playing the run on first and second downs.
"We ask that Leo at times to play the 'C' gap, which means he's got to be strong enough to take on tight ends," Bradley said. "I think he has that strength as well. It's a combination; can you do it play after play? It's not like you're going in there for ten plays or twelve plays.
"Hopefully this game (Thursday's preseason finale at Washington) we strain him a little bit and see what he can do."
That's the task for Smith now – to not only make impact plays in spot situations, but to show he can be consistent and reliable for long periods. It's a dramatically different role, one for which he believes he is ready.
"That's what you work hard for in the offseason," Smith said. "I hate to see my boy Andre Branch go down, but that's the business we're in. Injuries happen. Everybody has to step up."
As far as his offseason weight gain, Smith spoke candidly Sunday. He is an engaging guy, quick with a smile, and rather than make up a story about bulking up to improve against the run, he came clean. Four months of offseason was a longer break than he ever had in college.
He went home. He ate. A lot.
"Too much of momma's home cooking," he said, laughing.
His teammates, from Branch to Davis, got on him quickly.
"Everybody picked on me," he said, laughing. "They stayed on me hard. I don't have to hear their mouth no more."
Lesson learned, Smith said he had no trouble keeping weight off between the offseason and training camp. He ate right. And ran. A lot. Now, after being up to 280 pounds, he is at his drafted weight of 268 pounds as he faces the biggest opportunity of his young career. The main difference, he said, will be in how he prepares. Last year, as strictly a third-down player, he strictly watched third-down video.
"Now, I have to watch more first and second down," he said. "Guys like (tackles) Roy (Miller) and Sen'Derrick (Marks), they're real good guys on run fits. I'm going to get with those guys and team up. You become more of a student of the game as you go longer and longer in the league."
That's the approach of a player with a bigger role, a critical role. That's what Smith has now.
And even if he didn't expect it, it most certainly is at hand.