As I got older and my body filled out, my coaches at Tennessee decided to "maximize my linebacker ability." I always joke with prospective college players about how this conversation tends to go.
Coach: Steve, we love everything you're doing! You are giving great effort and really making some nice plays at linebacker ...
Me: Thanks, Coach.
Coach: ... but we, as coaches, haven't done a good enough job of putting you in position to make even more plays.
Me: More plays? Sounds good to me!
Coach: Great! OK, so what we want you to do is move up closer to the line. A little closer. OK, maybe one more step closer.
Me: But Coach, I'm on the line of scrimm--
Coach: That's OK! We want to get you up closer to the line of scrimmage so you can make more plays in the backfield!
Me: Sure, but ...
Coach: Now one more thing, you gotta really bend your knees so you can stay low to take on the blocks. A little lower. This is really going to allow you to showcase your lower body strength. Get waaay down there.
Me: Coach, I feel like I'm about to tip over on my face.
Coach: Awesome! Now just put your hand out in front of you and when you tip over, keep your arm extended and your elbow locked to keep you up. Then, when the ball is snapped, GO GET THE QUARTERBACK!!!
And that's, paraphrased, how I got moved from linebacker to defensive end without even realizing it. I'm sure other guys who have had their position changed in college have similar (and probably funnier) stories. It is also the reason why the NFL players I focused on in the '90s shifted from the guys I was watching in the '80s.
Looking for a tutor
This was in 1992, so my focus as a football-watching fan naturally went from linebackers, the position I had played in high school, up to the league's premier defensive ends. However, I wasn't just watching for sheer enjoyment anymore. I wanted to actually pick up some tips from watching the best guys in the NFL. Defensive end was a position I had only played sparingly in high school, mostly just on passing downs. It was still pretty foreign to me, so I thought while I was getting good coaching at Tennessee, I could learn even more by studying the guys who were already doing it well at the highest level of the game.
Being a Tennessee guy and growing up in Memphis watching the Vols on Saturdays, I was partial to probably the greatest defensive lineman ever to play the game: Reggie White (no relation *Uncle Ruckus voice*). This was a grown ass man who was truly a freak of nature, the likes of which most people had never seen. Someone that big and that powerful who could turn the corner from left end with speed was patently absurd. The only professional football game I had been blessed to see in person at that point in my life was back when he played for the Memphis Showboats, and he looked literally unblockable that day. For me it was easy to become a big fan of his.
But here's the thing: most of the moves Reggie White could do you simply could not teach. Well, you could teach it, but the guy trying to learn it would probably never have close to the kind of success he had with them. You pretty much had to be the same kind of freak of nature that he was to beat a humongous offensive tackle on a speed rush one play, then pick him up off his feet and throw him out of your way with a hump move on the next. I could have lived in the weight room, run a gazillion speed drills and still never been able to pull off some of his Herculean feats on the football field.
There was this one guy playing back then, however, whose game film you could probably still use as training tape to this day for young defensive ends who want to learn how to play the game the right way. That is especially true for all aspiring young pass rushers.
You youngins might know Bruce Smith as the all-time career leader in sacks since it became an official statistic, but you also may have only seen him play in Washington when his career was on a downward arc. That means you have no idea just how cold-blooded Bruce Smith truly was in his prime.
Don't get it twisted, I've had mixed feelings about Smith hanging around just to break Reggie's record for a looooong time. I would also still take Reggie White over Smith as a defensive end if ever given the chance to pick between the two (in some kind of fantasy football heaven). At the end of the day, all of Smith's sacks were legitimate sacks. None of them were given to him. And, hell, it's hard to hate on a dude who found a way to come home with nine sacks in his 18th year in the league, at 39 years old, to help push him ever closer to that record.
That is some phenomenal sh ... stuff!!!
We are talking about a guy who had double-digit sacks in 13 of his 19 seasons. Eleven Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro first teams, two AP Defensive Player of the Year awards, Pro Football Hall of Fame, second-team All-1980s and first-team All-1990s. Dude, you can't hate on the work he put in at all.
But bigger than that, Smith was a master-level pass rush tactician. Most guys, even and maybe especially the top-level guys, only have a handful of pass rush moves. They have a couple of speed rush moves, maybe a power move and/or a counter move.
That's all find and dandy, but Bruce Smith could do it all, bruh!
I don't mean he would try every move you could think of. I mean he could and would kick your ass with whichever move he decided to use that particular play.
That is what made it so enjoyable for me to watch him as I tried to learn how to play the position. If he did a move I didn't think I would be good at, all I had to do was wait a few plays and he would do something different. And all of it, I mean all of it, worked. Maybe not every play, maybe not every game, but he was going to get to the quarterback off of any move he made eventually.
There were a few things that he always did initially that I took note of and tried to emulate. First, was his get-off. Good LAWD that get-off. Ask Boomer Esiason about that get-off. Smith just about broke him into a bunch of puzzle pieces in 1995 when Esiason was with the Jets after Smith beat the left tackle clean off the snap with his get-off.
No matter how many times I see that hit, I still feel bad for Boomer.
Thing is Bruce Smith's pass rushes almost always looked the same initially. He always got off the ball like a scalded dog when the ball was snapped. This put pressure on the offensive tackle or, hell, the guard for that matter because Smith moved around a lot. That pressure to kick out and defend his speed rush could also get those offensive linemen in a lot of trouble. If they jumped without their feet set, they opened themselves up to power rushes and inside moves, but we will get to that in a minute.
So, the get-off was a constant with Bruce Smith, but so was his hip turn. As he shot off the ball like a rocket, Smith would also turn his hips toward the quarterback. I didn't get the reasoning for it at the time, but you couldn't help but notice it watching him play. After I got a few years under my belt playing the position, I understood that you have way more force behind you in the direction your hips are pointed. That means if you have your hips parallel to the line of scrimmage, you tend to make it easier for an offensive lineman to redirect your path to the quarterback, but if you turned them toward the quarterback where you can fight his force with some of your own, it was a lot harder to move you off of that path.
Now, I don't know if Smith had to practice at that for hours to get his hips to just reflexively turn inside or if that was something that just came naturally. Maybe it was a combination of both, who knows. What I do know is that he used it to perfection not only to turn the corner on a speed rush but also to help him stop and redirect his momentum when he wanted to counter back with an inside move.
When I train defensive linemen these days, you can bet your ass those are two coaching points that I hammer home, repeatedly.
Bad Things, Man
Bruce Smith could beat you around the corner with a simple dip and rip, a quick arm over, a power to a rip move, a true bull rush, a long arm or a stutter and go. He could beat you inside with a jab play (step upfield challenging outside, plant your inside foot in the ground, and cross over with your outside foot to inside the offensive lineman you are trying to beat while executing a quick arm over on his inside arm), an inside rip, a hump move, a bull rush to inside rip and my favorite, the almighty spin move. And of course, he could cut out the middle man and just run slap over you.
Imagine being an offensive lineman, seeing Bruce Smith lined up opposite you and knowing there was literally no telling which one of those moves you were about to see. He was so damned good at all of them.
Try not to pee your pants.
But after all this time y'all know it's not just skill that usually catches my eye when it comes to my favorite players, it's also their level of "nasty." I love to see guys who don't want to just *make* a tackle, but also want to inflict so much pain that the ball carrier's kinfolk feel part of the impact at home.
Bruce Smith handed out slobber knockers every single Sunday.
I always enjoyed those players who could talk the talk and walk the walk. I always marveled at the fact that they were in such great condition that they had spare oxygen in their lungs to waste jaw-jacking at their opponent after running all over the damn field. Current and former players can tell all the lies they want, but when a dude is kicking your ass and then telling you how bad he has and will continue to kick your ass, it affects you. It might piss you off, might make you dejected, but in some way, shape or form it's going to strike a nerve. There's a strategic advantage for a guy who can pull it off while, you know, continuing to kick ass.
The NFL didn't have as many guys mic'd up back then, but they did it enough to where you knew Bruce Smith liked to talk his sh ... stuff! It was kind of funny at the time, because for a big, strong, tough guy, Smith had kind of a light voice. But he would just keep needling guys, all the while whupping their butts. Maybe Smith's quips weren't as memorable as a guy like Lawrence Taylor, but the dude had jokes, man.
And then there was the Nike commercial. I ... won't even describe it to you. Just watch.
As a lifelong Cowboys fan (except for when I played), I am grateful that Smith's Bills couldn't beat them in the Super Bowl, but at the same time it is truly a shame that he never got to win a ring. That would have been the cherry on top for the career of the most well-rounded pass rusher I have ever seen or likely will ever see.
Reggie White is still my GOAT, but I learned infinitely more watching Bruce Smith in his prime. It was truly a blessing to watch him play the game back then.