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METAIRIE, La. – Abram Smith was just trying to get on the field as he could when he switched from running back to linebacker as a junior at Baylor in 2020.
It worked. Smith ended up leading the Bears in tackles in each of their last four games.
But as it turned out, Smith’s unorthodox path also shaped him into a better runner when he returned to his old position in 2021.
Not only could he see the field and read defense better, but the 5-foot-11, 221-pound became the kind of physical tone setter, Baylor, needed to help transform his identity from a 2-7 team to the Big 12 -master.
“I was definitely a more punishing runner,” said Smith, who finished fifth in the nation with 1,601 rushing yards and is now trying to serve a role in the New Orleans Saints’ backfield as an undrafted rookie. “You know, my mother always told me to be the hammer and not the nail. So I just love to impose my will or put my shoulder on a [defensive back] or linebacker. I can miss people, but I still feel more secure when I run over someone. ”
Smith said he weighed about 208 pounds earlier in his college career, then bulked up to 226 to play linebacker. When he returned to the offensive, he decided to keep some of the extra weight.
“I like the muscle mass I put on. And I guess I looked a little better in volume, to be honest,” Smith said with a smile. “It looks a little scary … and gives me a better confidence in my running ability. “
Smith was originally recruited to Baylor by Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, but his career could not have started worse. He tore the ACL in his right knee during the first spring training session and missed the 2017 season. He had previously torn his ACL in the same knee as another high school student.
Smith returned in 2018 to a crowded backfield and saw not much playing time. But he made a big impact in the coverage of special teams, and he was so effective that Rhule’s staff suggested switching to linebacker before Rhule traveled to the NFL in January 2020.
But just as successful as Smith was as a linebacker that season, the Bears generally struggled. And new coach Dave Aranda was right about what they were missing.
“Offensively in 2020, especially with driving the ball, we would go backwards,” Aranda said. “It would be first-and-10 and we would finish third-and-17. I take full responsibility for all that. But I just think that when it comes out of it, there was just not much confidence, no much of, ‘We will impose on you our will.’
“I think Abram had a lot to do with it [changing] Product.”
The idea of switching Smith back to offensive was collaborative. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes had just arrived from BYU, where he had overseen a similar transformation with current Atlanta Falcons rookie Tyler Allgeier. And he was looking for a runner that fit his broad zone plan. Baylor employee David Wetzel suggested Smith.
“From the very first bearing he got, it was like, ‘This is what it should look like,'” Aranda said.
Smith ran more than 100 yards in each of the Bears’ first three games. Then came the biggest turning point probably in the fourth game when they beat No. 14 in Iowa State.
Aranda had used Cyclones’ defense as an example to emulate in the spring, showing ties of their physical style and toughness. But Smith especially had two long runs where he ended up plowing into three-time first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth II.
“I would say that every game that came a point where Abram got the ball on our sideline and he lowers his shoulder and runs into a defender and drives him over and falls forward,” Aranda said. “And it’s like the best illustration of who we are or who we’re trying to be.”
Aranda and Rhule also praised Smith for his team-first mindset and desire to improve. Aranda said he could not remember anyone spending so much extra time working one-on-one with coaches in the walk-through room in the middle of the team’s training facility.
“He’s always been willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field and help the team win,” said Rhule, who added that it could help Smith in New Orleans because “that’s what any NFL does. team is looking for. “
“A guy who can play running back and obviously lead the big 12 in rushing and all the things he did this year but can also play special teams will be a physical player, is resilient,” Rhule said. “I mean, he’s demonstrated all the qualities of a winner during his time in college.”
Sure enough, Saints coach Dennis Allen highlighted the abilities of special teams as something that could get him on the field early – and impressed the Saints enough to offer him one of the biggest guarantees for any seasoned rookie in the league ($ 222,000).
Meanwhile, Smith chose the Saints over other suitors because he also recognizes the possibility in their backyard. Starter Alvin Kamara could potentially risk a suspension after being arrested on a battery charge in February. Also running back Mark Ingram II is 32 and is heading into the final year of his contract.
The Saints still have backup Tony Jones Jr., among others, but they have not drafted another running back and have not signed a veteran contract yet.
“I was a little bit surprised, a little bit sad. [to go undrafted], “said Smith, who said Saints’ running back coach Joel Thomas was one of the first to call and start courting him during the late rounds of the draft.” But you might as well take it as a chip on your shoulder and just get into camp and somehow prove your worth. So I think being appointed gave me that little edge even more than I already had. “