The San Francisco 49ers drafted a lot of players that were either unexpected or just generally fly under the radar. A lot of folks were interested in Colin Kaepernick, but it seemed like a lot of the other picks caught people a bit off guard. It started at the top with Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith. The 49ers used their seventh overall pick on Smith, who they plan on converting to outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense.
As we make our way towards the 2011 season, we want to learn as much as we can about each of the 49ers 2011 NFL Draft picks. My plan is to speak with a beat writer that covered the given player, and then speak with the players position coach. I can't guarantee each of these for every player, but we'll do our best to get you as much as we can. Today, we start with Dave Matter, who covers Missouri football for The Columbia Daily Tribune. Thanks to Dave for taking a few minutes to answer some questions about Aldon Smith.
NN: The 49ers appear to be looking at Smith as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. Did Smith ever do much work as an OLB in the MIssouri defense, or strictly as a defensive end?
Dave Matter: He always played with his hand on the ground, mostly at defensive end but also some three-technique defensive tackle. In obvious passing situations, third-and-5 or more, Smith usually moved inside to DT, and that's where a decent amount of his sacks came from. It's a pretty dramatic transition, but I've covered Missouri football since the mid to late '90s, and he's among the three best pure athletes I've watched go through the program, along with Justin Smith and Jeremy Maclin.
NN: Did he ever work on or show progress in speed-rushing/bending around the edge or has his only pass rush move always been the sidestep type move?
DM: He's a terrific speed rusher. Missouri has one of the better left tackles in the Big 12, a four-year starter, Elvis Fisher, and Smith gave him fits in practice every day the last two years. He can bull-rush through college offensive linemen, but he usually beats his man with pure speed off the snap.
NN: Whether as an OLB or DE, did Smith drop back into coverage much? If he did, is it something he would need to work on, or does he already excel at that facet of the game?
DM: Missouri did call some zone blitzes the last two years that dropped Smith into the flat. They didn't do it enough to where he looked extremely comfortable all the time, but he's such a natural athlete with such long arms that he was good for a deflection every so often. Against Oklahoma last season he picked off a short pass near the line of scrimmage. A linebacker came on a blitz from Smith's side of the line, Smith took a few steps forward then back-pedaled and picked off the pass. His return wasn't pretty - he rumbled almost 60 yards before running out of gas - but it was his first game back from his broken leg and he was far from pain-free at that point. Here's footage of the play:
NN: Do you think he'll have a particularly easy or difficult time learning NFL schemes and responsibilities?
DM: He's a sharp kid with a good work ethic. I'm interested to see how he makes the conversion to outside linebacker, but if he struggles, I doubt it'll be because he doesn't understand the concepts or assignments.
NN: He seemed to get back really quickly from the injury. Has he always been a pretty tough guy in that regard?
DM: Smith wouldn't even admit to the media that his leg was broken. The injury was confirmed by the coaches and team medical staff, but Smith insisted that it was just a bruise and that he'd be back quickly. Behind the scenes, though, he was relentless in his rehab, the trainers later told me. For Smith, I think it was a matter of pride. He didn't want to miss any games, and if he had to play a limited role and play through pain, then he'd settle for that, which he did. They held him out of an easy win against Miami-Ohio, a home game against Colorado and a trip to Texas A&M. All along, I believe they wanted him back for the next week, the Oklahoma game. He didn't play as many snaps as he normally would, but he came up with the big interception and it was Missouri's first win over OU since 1998.
NN: What's something 49ers fans should know about Smith in terms of off-the-field, non-football related?
DM: Smith's parents divorced not long before he started high school, and he moved from the South to Iowa, where he lived with his mom, to Kansas City, where he moved in with his dad just before his junior year of high school. His dad is an Army Reservist, so he ran a tight ship, and that's really when Aldon matured and started taking sports seriously. He hadn't played organized football until his junior year and it didn't take long for him to become a Division I recruit. Also, his extended family knows him by his middle name, Jacarus. In fact, when he played his first college game, against Illinois in 2009, the announcers kept talking about "Aldon Smith" and his grandmother was confused and didn't realize they were talking about him.
I enjoyed covering him. Good kid, takes a while to warm up to new people but he can be clever and insightful when the time's right.