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Sutton Smith out to prove quickness, not size, is key to rushing the passer in NFL
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NIU32 Offline
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Sutton Smith out to prove quickness, not size, is key to rushing the passer in NFL
Five years ago, Sutton Smith was a hot-shot running back at Francis Howell High in Missouri. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored 27 touchdowns en route to all-state recognition as a senior in Missouri’s highest football classification.

These days, Smith is trying to make it as an undersized outside linebacker for the Steelers, but his football roots are clearly evident when he rushes the passer.

Smith, a sixth-round draft choice out of Northern Illinois, showed off the traits that endeared him to the Steelers during the first practice of rookie minicamp Friday morning.


In the first team session, Smith, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 233 pounds, went up against Derwin Gray, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound tackle the Steelers drafted in the seventh round.

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On the first three plays, Smith used his quickness to turn the corner on Gray and easily applied pressure on the quarterback. On the fourth snap, Gray got a reprieve. Smith was asked to drop into coverage.

Later, in a second team session, Smith faked an outside move and easily beat Gray to the inside.

“Quickness is better than size, I feel,” Smith said following practice. “I just want to show my speed and be able to contribute any way I can.”


Smith was ultra-productive in the Mid-American Conference, where he tallied 29 sacks and 57 tackles for loss over his final two college seasons. The big question Smith will face as a pro is whether he’ll be able to produce the way he did in college against bigger and more athletic tackles.

In fact, in the moments after Smith was drafted, it was widely assumed he’d move inside in the NFL. He is almost the exact same size as Devin Bush, the No. 10 overall pick who will play inside for the Steelers.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler didn’t close the door on any possible move inside for Smith, but he made it clear the Steelers will evaluate Smith first as an outside linebacker.

“Right now, we know that he's a great rusher for us,” Butler said.

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The game certainly will change once the Steelers practice in pads at training camp, but Smith certainly didn’t look out of place when he lined up on the outside Friday morning. Gray is no lock to make the team, and his best shot to stick in the NFL is likely at guard. Nonetheless, he played tackle in the Big Ten Conference at Maryland.

There wasn’t any hesitation or intimidation when he lined up for his first taste of NFL football on Friday.

“It’s what I showed in college,” Smith said. “Yes, the NFL is way different, but it’s a work in progress. I just try to better my craft every single day.”

Rushing the quarterback has become almost as much of a thrill as rushing the football for Smith. Despite his high school accolades, the coaches at Northern Illinois quickly realized his quickness could be used to terrorize opposing offenses as a pass rusher.

He’s the same athlete, but Smith is just using his running back traits in a different way.

“Just being quick helps you a lot,” he said. “If I continue to be quick and try to play as fast I can, good things will happen.”

Good things happened quickly for Smith at Northern Illinois. As a sophomore, he registered an NCAA-high 14 sacks. He followed that up with another stellar junior campaign that netted 15 sacks.

Now he’s trying to bring his pass-rushing skill set to the NFL. Many draft analysts panned his performance as an edge rusher at the Senior Bowl, but the Steelers don’t agree. They believe his skills can translate to the NFL.

“It’s a fun thing for me,” Smith said of rushing the passer. “I love doing it. I feel good when I do it. I have a knack to get the football. That’s what they told me in college. I try to run with that and be the best I can be every day.”

Smith didn’t drop into coverage at Northern Illinois, but he knows that will be part of his job description as an outside linebacker with the Steelers. Smith took a few snaps as an off-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl so Friday wasn’t his first exposure to dropping into coverage.

“It’s whatever coach Tomlin wants me to do,” Smith said. “I’m here for whatever he needs. I can move in space. Everyone knows I can. Being able to display it today was good.”

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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05-11-2019 01:47 PM
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Teamduh Offline
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Sutton Smith out to prove quickness, not size, is key to rushing the passer in NFL

"Right now, we know that he's a great rusher for us,” Butler said.

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05-11-2019 02:55 PM
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