Worth the wait: Two-year battle to NFL pays off for Smith

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Jacquies Smith stands on the track of the State University of New York-Cortland campus after a long days practice at the New York Jets training camp.

The year is 2013 and despite being almost a year out of college, Smith is still in the mix to earn a spot on the team's roster. Smith stands by himself, waiting for the lone reporter who requested him for an interview while his teammates walk by to fulfill theirs. He's the only practice squad player asked for and the only one without a crowd of reporters around him, making him look like the odd man out. Yet he comes off as happy. Happy to be a part of it all. Happy to be in the mix for an NFL job. Happy to have a chance.

A chance. That's all some players need to prove they belong in the NFL. For Smith that chance wouldn't end up coming with the Jets. It wouldn't come for another year.

Smith, at the University of Missouri had a successful college career, drawing all-Big 12 honors during his career despite playing alongside numerous players who were drafted to the NFL. Unlike many of his teammates, Smith never heard his name called and had to try and make the pros as an undrafted free agent, a task easier said than done.

The defensive lineman bounced around three different teams practice squads and even have a three-month stint in the CFL before finally getting his shot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past season.

"All the time waiting to make some plays, that's why you play football for," Smith said. "I think that every football player who plays and wants to make plays, and ultimately they do, but you don't get to there without showing what you can do. I spent two years waiting for that so when I got the opportunity I definitely wanted to make the most of it."

And he did. Quickly.

The Bucs signed Smith before the start of the season shortly after he was waived by the Buffalo Bills. The defensive lineman made an impact immediately. Smith said it took a while for him to get adjusted to head coach Lovie Smith's pass-rush friendly defense but once he did, he showed what he's capable of. Smith started the season as a backup but was starting by season's end.

Brett Sobleski of Bleacher Report considered Smith as one of the best signings of the season, after he finished with 17 tackles, a forced fumble and 6.5 sacks, good for second on the team.

"It took me a little time to get comfortable in the scheme with what these guys have been asking but it's a great system we have and I was able to do what I could do once I got my plays down," Smith said.

For Smith, the Bucs were the fourth stop on his NFL journey. He's played for both the Jets and Dolphins practice squads before getting his chance in Tampa Bay. Smith says he has no regrets about the way his path to the pros went, and thought it was only a matter of time before he would get his shot.

"You know it's a right time right place type of thing," Smith said. "They had a lot of veteran guys that were ahead of me. And the GM and the coach ultimately make the personal decisions. I just do me thing and put my best foot forward and ultimately they make those decisions."

Craig Kuligowski knows a pro when he sees one. In his 19 years as defensive line coach at Missouri, "Coach Kool" as he's known, has built the Tigers into a factory for NFL lineman, coaching the likes of Aldon Smith, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson among others. For Kuligowski, Jacquies Smith was no different. Kool said could tell early on Smith had the tools to play on Sunday. In Kool's eyes it wasn't a knock on Smith's skill set that kept him from getting a shot but merely the depth of talent in the NFL led him to lose out on a roster spot until recently.

"What it is with these NFL teams is that they're so loaded with talent that you end up having to find the right fit," Kuligowski said. "Jacquies finally got to a spot where they changed the defense a little bit to do what he's probably better suited for. His defensive line coach there is a great guy and does a lot of the similar stuff that we do and I'm sure all of that blended itself to helping him get a chance there."

Smith doesn't consider his path to the NFL any different form others, saying how there are plenty of stories like his own throughout the league.

"I feel like everyone has to take a different road", Smith said. Just to stay on the path and stay the course and believe in your abilities. Everybody gets their shot and opportunity at different times and some guys take a little longer than others."

Chris Gilbert's relationship with Smith started out a lot like his NFL career. It took a while for it to get to a good place. Gilbert arrived as the head coach of South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas in 2005 after Smith's sophomore year and quickly realized he was one of the best athletes around. The two clashed early on about whose way was better but eventually the two came to an understanding and Gilbert entrusted Smith to lead the team.

What impresses Gilbert the most about Smith's journey is that he was able to get his chance at the pros a few years out of college. Undrafted players usually see their chances at the pros drop pretty quickly, as only 27 percent of NFL players on the opening week roster are undrafted free agents according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Somehow Smith has managed to stick around despite being cut numerous times.

"Someone saw something for him to keep making practice squads because three or four years after you finish, if you're still hanging around, someone see's something," Gilbert said. "And now he's had a chance with Coach Smith at Tampa Bay to show what he can do."

Smith was able to have all of this success despite growing up in a rough part of Dallas. Carjackings and armed robberies are constant in the area. The Dallas Morning News and other media outlets even reported that South Oak Cliff High School was accused of holding cage fights in 2009 as a way for students to settle their differences. Stuff like that never interested Smith, nor did he see it as an excuse for not succeeding.

"You never had to worry about Jacquies," Jamal Adams, Smith's defensive line coach at South Oak Cliff said. "You had other guys we had to focus on or worry about but he was never a guy you had to worry about."
This month the Bucs will have the top pick in the NFL Draft after going an abysmal 4-12 in 2014. While the team will most likely take a quarterback, Smith is more concerned about the defense and making it better than the previous season. While the Texas native is pleased with the way his rookie season went and the feeling of job security, something he's never had before, he still see's plenty of room for improvement.

"Obviously everything is a work in progress," Smith said. "I'm blessed to be in the situation I'm in right now. Just being able to make plays and have the opportunity to produce. There's a still a lot of work to do I want our team to be a winning football team and hopefully I can be a key part to make it that but ultimately it's a really good feeling to be able to go out there and play on Sunday."

Gilbert and Adams now coach at Lancaster, a suburb of Dallas and still see Smith all the time, whether it's working out or bringing him in to speak to their current team. Both coaches say what makes them happiest about their former players success is that it hasn't changed him as a person, instead, it's made him hungrier.

"When he comes over he's the same old guy," Gilbert said. "He has a lot of grit, he came to me last week and he was like 'Coach I have to get that to where I'm consistent and everyone knows me.' He's just not satisfied. He wants to be the best one. And I'm glad he's not content. He's not content at all."

Alex Schiffer is a sophomore journalism student at the University of Missouri and hails from Westfield, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @TheSchiffMan
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