Commentary

Smith looks to redeem his status

Updated: March 18, 2009, 2:34 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Andre SmithTodd Kirkland/Icon SMITackle Andre Smith tells himself that three good years at Alabama can't be erased with an early departure from the combine.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Forget marriage, or graduation, this is his biggest day ever. Mom is here, in a freshly pressed gray suit, praying, because she does that at least three times a day. "You look great," she says. The agent is here, eyes darting from his BlackBerry to a corner patch of AstroTurf. Team Andre is over there, back behind the ropes, yelling, "Run, 'Dre, run!" And here's the best part: Several dozen middle-aged men in khakis are here, with stopwatches and clipboards, to see what Andre Smith is made of.

"Jello," is what some pundits and wise guys eventually will type, and the early reviews are mixed. But Smith is undaunted. He plants his hands into the grass, tilts his head up and runs. Where he's going, nobody knows.

And so ends pro day at the University of Alabama, or, as many have called it, Andre Smith's Last Chance. Twenty-two years old, and Smith is supposedly as volatile as Wall Street, soaring and strong one moment, crashing and broke the next. On Feb. 19, he was an Outland Trophy winner and a lock to be a top-three draft pick. Then he left the combine unannounced, and the red flags flew.

He has been called everything from soft to unmotivated to a head case who might have squandered $24 million. Every day brings a new crack, every move is magnified and dramatized.

"It's been brutal," says his agent, Alvin Keels. "Sometimes you lose focus of what made him a special player to begin with, the fact that he had three years of great football, that he's been a leader and a model teammate.

"Now all of a sudden … he left the combine a little early and the [question] is, 'Can we trust him as a professional?' That's kind of taking it to the extreme."

But that's the NFL, which is essentially 17 weeks of extreme. Within an hour of Smith's big workout in front of roughly 50 NFL types, reports flow in that it's a bust, that Smith made a fatal error by running shirtless.

There go a few million more.

A good family

Money never poured out of the Smith house. They carved out a decent life for their four children in Birmingham, Ala., Andre Sr. running a car-detail shop and Nesa toiling for the postal service. Every Sunday, they gave at the collection plate, then met Pastor Steve Green after church with an extra dollar on good weeks and a hug when times were tight.

"We don't have much," the Smiths would tell Green, "but just want to let you know how much we appreciate you. Go get a Pepsi-Cola or some chips."

[+] EnlargeAndre Smith
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSmith received the 2008 Outland Trophy, honoring the best interior lineman.

Young Andre came from a good family, his pastor says, and just about everyone in town knew where he was headed. He was in sixth grade when he walked through a prayer line and Green asked his life's goal. To be an NFL player, Smith said.

Around that same time, Smith chose his position, left tackle, because that's the spot that commanded the most money. And when the kid introduced himself to his future high school coach one night at the Golden Corral, 13 years old, 6-foot-2 and a ribeye away from 300 pounds, it all seemed to make sense.

"That's a big kid," Curtis Coleman, the old coach at Huffman High, thought as he eyeballed Smith for the first time. That's a future NFL lineman. His life, for the next eight or nine years, seemed as easy as his laid-back demeanor. He was graceful enough to charm women on the dance floor, smart enough to stay on course, and mean enough to make teenage defensive linemen shake in their cleats.

"We used to do this finisher drill," Coleman says. "And he learned early on that the quicker he pancaked someone, the less he had to work. You could tell it was a lot more to him than just blocking a guy. He pretty much wanted to dominate the guy."

Recruiting gurus dubbed him one of the most dominating offensive linemen in a decade. Everybody, from USC to LSU, wanted Smith. On signing day, with an entire state watching, he casually pulled out a hounds-tooth hat that his mother bought. He was staying in Alabama.

He wasn't supposed to start as a true freshman. He leveled 70 knockdown blocks and led the Tide by being on the field for 831 plays. He wasn't supposed to dominate. A YouTube clip called, "Andre Smith is a MAN!" collected more than 140,000 hits. It showed the freshman demolishing an Arkansas tackler.

Three years, and his NFL résumé appeared impeccable -- two-time first-team All-SEC, consensus All-American, and just one sack in all of 2008. Smith, half joking but mostly serious, compared Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson to his mother. He couldn't bear for either to get hit.

"He's tried to do everything right," Nesa says. "Our children have been trained about protocol, doing things in order.

"His biggest flaw? Let me think about that. Sometimes, he might be too nice. And someone might take advantage of his kindness."

Draft status

But there had to be flaws. Just as the mock drafters were sliding him in at No. 1, shipping him off to dreary destinations like Detroit or St. Louis, Smith's cracks started to show. In late December, days before the Sugar Bowl, he was suspended for violating team rules. Various media reports said he was sent home for improper dealings with an agent, something Smith and his family deny.

[+] EnlargeAndre Smith
AP Photo/Dan LopezReviews were mixed after Smith's performance at the Alabama pro day, but he is undeterred.

More than six weeks passed before Smith finally hired Keels. They met on Super Bowl Sunday, and, as Keels says, "instantly clicked." He signed Smith on Feb. 12, one week before the combine. Under the new "junior rule," Smith wasn't allowed to have contact with an agent until Jan. 19.

"That's not a lot of time for an athlete and agent to build that kind of chemistry," Keels says. "For the combine, I'm not making any excuses, but that's kind of an example of the junior rule hurting the player. You've got to think that the average senior probably signs with an agent right after the bowl game, sometimes in December.

"By the time the combine rolls around, you have plenty of time to prepare. You have that trust level with an agent. Andre and I were a little different. I signed him, and he was at the combine a week later. It didn't give us a lot of preparation time."

What happened next has been the biggest story of the 2009 draft so far. Smith showed up for the combine last month, draftniks said he was out of shape, and then an announcement was made inside Lucas Oil Stadium that a 332-pound lineman was missing. Had he told someone he was leaving, that he was taking a 6 a.m. flight to meet his trainer, maybe the late-winter fodder would've been focused on Matthew Stafford's arm or Michael Crabtree's foot screw.

But Smith's draft stock was plummeting, and he felt the thud by late Saturday morning, when his cell phone kept ringing in an Atlanta gym. He was oblivious to the scene unfolding in Indianapolis.

"If I had to do it over again," Smith says, "I would've handled it so differently. After the criticism started coming out, I stopped listening to it and just continued to work out."

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But it opened him up to criticism as steep as the Smoky Mountains. Various reports suggested Smith was immature and ill-prepared for the rigors of the NFL. Some said his weight shot as high as 370 -- Smith says he's never tipped the scales at more than 345.

He won't deny that, like many linemen, he's struggled with his weight. Last summer, he joined the "Big Boys Club," a group of Alabama players who got up at 6 a.m. to work themselves into better shape.

He has been working out three times a day for more than a month in Atlanta. Chryste Gaines, a former gold-medal sprinter, critiques his running form. Tyrone "Ropeman" Felder, who has worked with the likes of Ray Lewis and Laveranues Coles, is imploring Smith to push harder.

"He's a hard worker," says former Alabama linemate Antoine Caldwell. "I know he's caught a lot of heat lately, but he's a great person. One of the best teammates I've ever been around."

The stigma

Two young university PR workers stand outside the Hank Crisp Indoor Practice Facility, peeling credentials away from a pile of black string. About 40 media members will be allowed in, and others are out to avoid a crush. Last year, pro day was a rather hum-drum event because zero Alabama players were drafted. Today, there is a buzz because Tuscaloosa's biggest star needs to redeem himself.

What should've been a good first sign is turned bad by the gurus. Smith weighs in at 325 pounds, the lightest he's been in at least three years. But he takes off his shirt during the weigh-in, exposing an anti-Mandarichian belly.

When he goes topless during the 40-yard dash, bloggers gasp. His times aren't embarrassing, but they don't rank among the Top 10 prospects according to NFL.com. Smith also gets low marks in the 225-pound bench press, managing just 19 reps.

But one item that wasn't widely mentioned, former Cowboys exec Gil Brandt says, is that Smith has unusually long arms, making it harder to have big numbers on the bench press.

"Long arms are a prerequisite for being a good offensive lineman," says Brandt, an NFL.com analyst. "His arms are probably as long as anybody's in this draft.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that he works out better than his numbers indicate. Sometimes you go to a restaurant and the restaurant doesn't look very attractive, but once you get in there the food is pretty darn good. In this case, I think the body is not very attractive, but once you see him move around and do things, he's a lot better than what you're led to believe."

The biggest question, in some scouts' minds, won't be whether Smith has the ability to make an impact in the NFL. They'll wonder, Brandt says, if they can keep him in shape.

Smith is sitting near the windows at a restaurant on the Alabama campus a day after his workout, watching the kids with backpacks zoom by. Dressed in jeans and a designer T-shirt, with sunglasses propped on top of his head, he looks much smaller. And gentler. His dad always taught him to show two faces, to be the meanest one on the field and nicest man off of it.

Andre Jr. wonders, sometimes, if his easy-going demeanor leads people to wonder if he's focused.

"How serious am I?" he says. "How serious do you think I am? I don't think it's a flaw. That's just me. I'm laid-back.

"The only thing I can do is try to get the stigma off of me, I guess. I just want to get my name cleared like it was before all this stuff happened."

What happened? Smith still isn't exactly sure. He didn't hurt anyone that February morning or wind up on a police blotter. He tells himself that three years at Alabama can't be erased with one early flight or shirtless afternoon. But it likely will cost him millions come draft day on April 25. His supporters in Alabama know it, and Smith does, too. Publicly, he says it will be "an honor" just to be a first-round pick. Privately, he knows he could've had much more.

"This kid had lifetime goals," Pastor Green says. "Like the prodigal son, maybe he did come close to jeopardizing it. Let's be like that father. Once he repented … they still gave him the fatted calf.

"He hasn't done anything bad. Let's not write him off so quickly."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.