The Denver Broncos are officially looking for leadership.
With the acquisition of former New England Patriot Le Kevin (pronounced leh KEE vin) Smith, the Broncos have once more gone for a player who was a leader during his collegiate career. Playing for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Smith teamed with Titus Adams over his last two seasons there to a top-level pair of defensive tackles on a 4-3 line. Smith himself contributed a stellar swim move and 6 sacks to a defensive line that accounted for a total of 50 sacks, the best in the USA, over Smith's senior year in college (2005). NFLDraftScout.com referred to him as the 'high energy leader' of that line. This importation continues a pattern that has carried over since the first of the Josh McDaniels/Brian Xanders free-agent signings was confirmed. Character matters. So does intellect. And, after the bend-and-break defenses of the past few seasons, physical and mental toughness are now flat-out requirements.
Le Kevin is a natural athlete. As a youth, Smith used to challenge other kids to a back-flip contest, often completing 3 and 4 in a row. Now 6'3" and 308 lbs, Smith can still do a back-flip. He should get along well with Marcus Thomas, who can toss a mean back-flip of his own. As a high school athlete, Smith earned letters all four years in track as well as football. He was a three-time state discus champion in Georgia, and a two-time State shot-put champion. Le Kevin is a very, very good athlete. He was also an All-State defensive tackle his senior year at Stratford Academy where he did his prep work. He was named the USA Today Georgia Player of the Year and was also an All-American according to both Super Prep and Rivals.com, playing at defensive tackle. Stratford Academy would win two Class 3A state football titles while he was there.
Smith's college career at Nebraska got off to a shaky start in 2001, though, as he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in August training camp. He also required surgery on his other knee that offseason, but Smith was undeterred. He red-shirted and used the time to his best advantage in the weight room, returning with more bulk and more strength as a freshman in 2002 and earned All-Big 12 honors that year.
His career really took off as a junior, however. He was an All-Big 12 Conference honorable mention as a nose guard. He racked up 43 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 pressures, and 11 tackles for loss, while starting all 11 games that year. As a senior, he was even better despite moving to under-tackle. He had the above mentioned 6 sacks and a whopping 12 tackles for loss, batting away one pass and intercepting another while adding 7 pressures. Smith only missed 1 game in his entire college career after returning from his knee injury. Over the course of his career, he totaled 36 tackles for loss, the 7th most in Cornhusker history. The quality of his play earned him an invitation to the Combine.
Combine was just another chance to him to shine. He was measured at 6'3" and 316 lbs. Despite his size, he ran a 4.97 40-yard dash, did 30 reps on the 225-lb. bench press and demonstrated a 30.5-inch vertical jump. He also scored a 9'1" broad jump and ran the 10-yard dash in 1.75 seconds. nfldraftscout.com had him as the 148th-ranked player in the country. The draft, however, didn't agree. He was finally picked in the 6th round, pick #206 by New England.
"He has a little position flexibility," Bill Belichick said after the Patriots selected Smith. "He has a little bit of height to him so he could possibly play some end. I think we’ll start him off a little more at nose tackle. Let’s see how it goes."
New England saw his potential and quickness. Eventually, they moved him to defensive end in the 3-4 rotation although he was used in different looks. He never started; but in fairness, the New England front three is one of the best in the league. Using his speed and tenacity, Smith began to stand out on special teams. He played on coverage units and blocked for returns. He won increased playing time each year, and last season he totaled a career-high 21 tackles. He even picked up Andre Hall's fumble last season in New England. He is capable of playing DT in the 4-3 or DE in the 3-4. His versatility can help him fight for a roster slot in Denver, although he will probably not start.
Some fans feel that this is a slap at our current players. I think that the coaches will tell you that you can't have too much quality at DL, and that competition brings out the best in people. Smith is well known for his voracious work ethic, and that's also something that the Broncos could use.
Beyond the field, Smith has the body of an athlete and the soul of an artist. He likes to paint, draw, and also enjoys photography and architecture. Some of his paintings hang in a Macon, GA hospital. He was even considering an architecture degree, but his practical side won out. He finished his degree in construction management in December, 2005. Smith was named to the Big 12 Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll in 2003. And his name, which has raised some eyebrows, is a combination of his father's name, Louis, and his mother's name, Kim.
In interviews - here and here - Smith comes across as intelligent, gentle, thoughtful and sensitive - a strange combination in such a large man with such a violent occupation. He loves drawing and loves to cook, making any kind of Southern meal. But that's the kind of contradiction that you often find in men with unusually high intellects, multiple talents and physical skills. They like to be the best at everything that they do, and they try to learn their subjects well, as his history and honor roll achievement shows.
Smith wasn't going to crack a starting rotation that includes Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, especially with backups like Jarvis Green and Mike Wright also finding minutes. He may or may not make the rotation with the Broncos, but he's willing to try. Said Head Coach Josh McDaniels,"We're just trying to improve the football team in every way we can," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "If there's a player at any position that could help us or we feel could improve our depth or talent, at any position, we would take a look at him. He certainly is a guy that we've evaluated and feel like he could fit what we're doing."
John Blake, Smith's position coach at Nebraska (now with the Dallas Cowboys) said, "He really knows the game of football."
Rodney Collins, Smith's coach from high school said, "Some kids are blessed with [talent] and take it for granted. He was never like that. His conditioning was a sense of pride with him. He was a leader in the weight room as well as on the football field. Everyone looked up to him here, and he was nice to everyone. The kind of guy that everyone wants to be around. Just a big ol' teddy bear."
Obviously, a bear with big, long claws. It will be fun to see if he can claw his way onto the Broncos roster. With his size, skill set and experience, I wouldn't bet against him. Give the man a salmon!