When the Pittsburgh Steelers arrive at Latrobe for the start of their 2019 training camp roughly five weeks from today one of the team’s three sixth-round draft picks this year, outside linebacker Sutton Smith out of Northern Illinois, is likely to be an instant fan favorite as he’s an easy player to root for. After all, what’s not to like about an undersized edge-rusher who mostly played running back in high school and ultimately defied the measurable bias in college on his way to registering 30 total sacks, of which 29 came in his final two seasons?
Despite his strong college pass-rushing resume, Smith will undoubtedly still need to show this year in training camp that he can wear multiple hats with a primary one having a special teams tag emblazoned on it. Nobody probably made that more clear during the Steelers offseason practices than inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky when he talked to the media last week during the team’s mandatory minicamp
“He played defensive end in college,” Olsavsky said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “The easiest way to make the team is on special teams, then make yourself valuable with the other traits. We like how he comes off the edge. Now we are trying to get him to be a good special teams player, so he has a spot there.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler also said as much about Smith not long after the team had drafted him.
“Sutton Smith is a quick guy. He’s going to add some depth to our outside linebackers to help us on special teams,”Butler said immediately following the selection of Smith. “We’ll get him here and see what he does best. Right now, we know that he’s a great rusher for us. He’s going to create some great competition for us at outside linebacker, which is always good. We’ll see when he gets here at camp, what he does best and try to utilize his abilities to that.”
The “other traits” that Olsavsky spoke of last week figure to be related to Smith showing that he can also serve as an emergency fullback and maybe even as an emergency inside linebacker during training camp, in addition to outside linebacker. The 6003, 233-pound Smith reportedly received some limited work at fullback during the Steelers offseason practices and he updated the media on how that experience has gone for him to date.
“Things are going well with fullback,” Smith said. “They are throwing me in a little bit more, They don’t want me to pick a position. They want me to learn both positions.”
With “both” positions being outside linebacker and fullback, will Smith also get some practice time at inside linebacker once the team begins their training camp practices in late July?
“To teach somebody inside and outside right away? That would be a disservice,” Olsavsky said last week per the newspaper report. “If it shows up later, OK. But that’s something that comes out during the course of training camp.”
Smith learning all of those multiple positions this summer aside, it has to be reemphasized that him proving himself as potentially being a core special teams player at Latrobe and during the preseason is paramount. If he can’t make himself valuable to special teams coordinator Danny Smith, it’s unlikely that he’s make the initial 53-man roster.
Looking back at Smith’s college career, it’s hard to tell if he played any on special teams but if he did, it probably wasn’t much. Because of that, it will be interesting to see how he does when it comes to him covering punts and kickoffs once he puts the pads on for the first time as a member of the Steelers. If he can prove to be a valuable asset in that phase of the game, him learning the other positions along the way will just be icing on the cake for him and thus make him even harder to part with come early September.
Oh, about Smith potentially being too undersized to play outside linebacker at the NFL level, Olsavsky relayed some interesting observations on that notion as well last week.
“At rookie camp, you might have looked at him a couple times and said, ‘Maybe he is too small.’ But I haven’t seen that now,” Olsavsky reportedly said. “You look at the film, and he holds up on the edge pretty well.”
Personally, I can’t wait to watch Smith wear multiple hats during the preseason and I bet many of yinz feel the same way.