The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
And the way to making an NFL roster is through the special teams’ coach.
In a candid moment yesterday, special teams coordinator Danny Smith admitted how much sway guys like him have. In a rare press conference with the media, Smith was asked his influence on deciding the final roster spots for the 53 man roster and the active, 46-48 gameday roster.
“I am going to be honest with you here with the answer,” Smith said via a transcript from the team. “The special teams coach has a lot of say. But I am going to end it with this. Assistants make suggestions. Head coaches make decisions. Does that answer your question?”
A wonderful, Danny Smith answer. And a truthful one. The path for so many players, basically anyone who isn’t a top draft pick or high-prized free agent, is through special teams. Steelers’ history is littered with those names from guys like Donnie Shell, Hines Ward, and James Harrison to several current-day Steelers.
Take Benny Snell. A superstar at Kentucky, he was the school’s big man on campus, putting football on the map of a basketball town. But he was a 4th round pick and an obvious backup when the Steelers drafted him. Most college players spent at least their freshman and sophomore years earning their stripes on special teams. Not Snell, who was immediately thrust into the Wildcats’ lineup, making his lack of special teams experience a large obstacle. Former Steelers’ RB Jawon Chisholm recently tweeted his experience of being a rookie without a special teams resume.
Facts!! I remember I felt I was too good for ST in college.. got to the Steelers and the special teams coach said “If you didn’t play ST in college your F*****” I look around and seen I was like the only one.. When Tomlin cut me he said that was one of the reasons .. This is 🎯🎯 https://t.co/rvRC0LawOF
— J Chiz (@beenlikethis) January 2, 2021
But Snell immediately embraced his role. He ran down kicks, served as the right wing on punts, even in games where he was the starting running back. He led Steelers’ RBs in special teams snaps in 2020 and was second on the team in 2019. He played well, showing physicality, toughness, and a willingness to tackle. That immediately earned him a gameday helmet and had him ready for an increased role as a runner when called upon.
There’s also Robert Spillane. Called up from the practice squad mid-way through last season, he dominated on special teams. To the point where his play may have been one reason why the Steelers were comfortable letting Tyler Matakevich walk. Spillane continued that role for the first chunk of 2020 until Devin Bush’s season-ending ACL tear. Spillane was elevated into a starting role and has played well at ILB. But it all started with his work on special teams.
And Smith is the man in Mike Tomlin’s ear telling him who to play. The guys who help shape the bottom of the roster, get that last helmet on gameday, and make a difference on special teams. It gives those guys a chance to provide value to the team while waiting for the chance to play on their side of the ball.
Advice to future Steelers’ rookies. Become friends with Danny Smith. Bring him extra bubble gum. Listen to him in practice and kick butt on special teams. He’s the guy who won’t determine, but certainly influence, your role and potentially, your career.