Each year some of the more provocative stories coming from the scouting combine in Indianapolis revolve around a handful of players fighting to prove that they have the ability to remain at their collegiate positions in the NFL.
Often, it is an athletic quarterback willing to run routes as a receiver but more eagerly anticipates the opportunity to throw passes. Or an oversized running back hoping to show just enough speed and elusiveness to avoid being pigeon-holed as a fullback.
Missouri junior Aldon Smith is hoping the exact opposite scenario played out last week in Indianapolis.
A record-setting defensive end in the Tigers' 4-3 scheme, Smith can't help but be excited about the NFL's evolution toward more odd-man fronts -- and how it could impact his game with a transition from right defensive end to a stand-up rush linebacker in the 3-4.
"I have to admit, as I'm learning more and more about this 3-4 defense, I'm starting to think I might want to play in that," Smith said.
Smith needed only to point to the last football game he'd seen to assess why his optimism was bubbling over about the change in position.
"It was exciting to see [Clay] Mathews, [Lamarr] Woodley and [James] Harrison and the rest of those rush linebackers in the Super Bowl," Smith said. "The 3-4 defense puts their rushers in position to make a lot of plays. I feel with my athleticism I can do a lot of things in that defense. Moving me around so that the offense doesn't know where I'm going to be from snap to snap would really help me fulfill my potential."
Smith might not just like the idea of rushing the passer from the stand-up position -- he might be a natural fit. The 3-4 outside linebacker has become the NFL's most glamorous position on the defensive side of the ball. The top four sack leaders in 2010 -- Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, Kansas City's Tamba Hali, Miami's Cameron Wake and Green Bay's Matthews -- play the position. An outside linebacker has led the league in sacks in each of the past three years.
For the first time in league history, the NFL was roughly split 50-50 between 4-3 and 3-4 teams.
With three of the four teams playing in the conference championship games playing out of the odd-man front -- the Chicago Bears being the 4-3 exception -- conversions such as Smith's aren't likely to end any time soon. The NFL isn't considered the ultimate copycat league for no reason.
Of course, wanting to move to linebacker and actually possessing the rare blend of size, speed, flexibility and instincts to make the conversion are very different matters.
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Smith had a very good sophomore year and impressed opponents with his burst and length in 2009. Count potential top offensive tackle prospect Nate Solder of Colorado among the cap-tippers.
Smith was still recovering from a broken leg and did not play against Colorado in 2010. He did play against Colorado in 2009, lining up often against Solder and registered five tackles, including four tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass broken up. "I was very impressed with Aldon Smith. He's big, tall, athletic, strong and has real long arms. We had a real tough time with him," said Solder.
Smith was rarely asked to drop back into coverage in his two starting seasons with the Tigers but scouts believe he can get there with enough work at the linebacker spot.
Said one NFL decision-maker on the condition of anonymity, "[He] has the length and burst off the snap you're looking for. He possesses a good frame with room for additional mass, so you know he's going to get bigger and stronger if he works at it.
"I like him best staying at defensive end. He's a young guy still growing into that body, so who knows how big he'll wind up. There is no denying that he's got some juice as an edge rusher, though, and in some 3-4 schemes all they really ask their linebacker to do is pin their ears back and go after the quarterback."
|Aldon Smith has the upside, but NFL scouts thought the same of Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey and others too. (US Presswire)|
"I can understand why scouts might question how well I can move," Smith admits. "I wasn't asked to drop back much in 2009. I did it a little bit more this year as the coaching staff started to recognize my athleticism. I definitely feel more comfortable doing it now since I've been working out here, specifically focusing on my drops.
"Obviously I came here [to Athletes Performance] hoping to improve in every area, but I feel particularly confident in some of the more athletic drills, rather than just technique stuff," Smith said.
As teams return from Indianapolis to evaluate athletic drills and testing results, the conclusions they draw will play an important role in how Smith is perceived. He knows that the medical grading and interviews will be important, but that March 17, when Missouri has its pro day in Columbia, can be a second chance to make an impression. The event is expected to be well attended by scouts who are eager to see NFLDraftScout.com's top-ranked quarterback, junior Blaine Gabbert, throw for the first time since the season ended. Gabbert won't be grabbing the full spotlight.
"Aldon, he's a freak," Gabbert said. "I've known Aldon since high school. I've seen the transition he's made coming from a 220-pound D-end out of Kansas City, and now he's close to 270 pounds. And just seeing him play on the football field is pretty special. The things he can do for how big he is ... it's pretty crazy to watch."
Smith burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, breaking Justin Smith's school record with 11.5 sacks to go along with 64 tackles and 19 tackles for loss. For his efforts, Smith was unanimously chosen as the Big 12's Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
Despite being the focus of every team's blocking scheme, Smith's 2010 season began in fine form. He posted 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks in Missouri's season-opening win against Illinois. But a broken leg suffered against San Diego State sidelined him for three games and hampered his play much of the rest of the season. His statistical production dropped as a result: 48 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
With two years of eligibility remaining after a down season, many were surprised Smith elected to make himself eligible for the 2011 draft.
"The decision was a tough one," Smith says. "I got a second-round grade back from the Advisory Committee. I got that and felt confident that through workouts I could move myself into the first round. That is my goal. I am proud of my college career and just wanted to try something new."
Not only does he boast the size and athleticism scouts are looking for to play defensive end or outside linebacker, he said he also played a little bit at three-technique defensive tackle with the Tigers.
Clearly he's not so one-dimensional that teams will take him off of their draft board. Consider that Smith met with 28 teams in Indianapolis, and it underlines the idea that he can find a position fit in most any defense.
Smith possesses a great deal of upside. He turned 21 in November and has played just five years of organized football.
The relative lack of experience is sure to make some scouts nervous. Perhaps in the most important component to successful pass rushing, however, Smith has more experience than most of his peers.
"I've done a lot of work with [linebacker preparations] since I got out of college. When I was in college, I was comfortable when I was doing it. I think the more I do it, the more comfortable I get," Smith said.
Some of the biggest flops in recent draft history have come from teams attempting to project collegiate defensive linemen to NFL stand-up pass rushers. It is an adjustment that Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Jarvis Moss and countless others thus far have been unable to make.
The pure speed rushes that might have worked at the collegiate level simply won't cut it in the NFL. Like a pitcher in baseball with just a fastball, sooner or later, opponents catch up. The pass rushers who are successful in the NFL are the ones who develop counter-moves and learn to use their hands.
Despite Smith's relative lack of experience, he understands the value of his long arms, active hands and versatility. His quick and active hands are the product of training in martial arts.
"It definitely helps your hand-eye coordination and that is really important for a pass rusher, Smith said. "Through martial arts, I've been taught how to keep someone's hands off of me. On the football field, we are going against those offensive linemen who are much bigger guys, so if we can keep their hands off of us, it makes our job much easier."
So what will set Smith apart as a pass rusher?
"Versatility," he said. "Being able to drop, being athletic. Something a lot of people don't know about me is that I can stop the run. I can help out in that area, too."
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter: @RobRang.