Eight years ago, Clifton Smith came to Tampa in May and started a remarkable and very nearly unique journey. Neither drafted nor signed in the frenzied hours of post-draft phone calls, the former Fresno State running back managed to get an invite to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis. Though he had been a productive college player, Smith had been passed over because he stood just 5-9 and 190 pounds.
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Smith's tryout went well, however, leading to a foothold on the offseason roster, and then an invite to training camp and, as the regular season began, a spot on the Buccaneers' practice squad. When second-round draft pick Dexter Jackson didn't work out as the return man, Smith was called up to give it a shot. He was so successful in that role – including two touchdown returns – that his rookie season had one more game tacked on the end: the Pro Bowl.
Jackson's 2008 journey was, in fact, unique to the Buccaneers, as he was the first undrafted player in team history to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He also joined a very small fraternity, NFL-wide, as the only two previous undrafted rookies to end up in the all-star game were Everson Walls in 1981 and Rufus Porter in 1988.
Last week, the Buccaneers signed Florida State cornerback Javien Elliott, another rookie who was passed over in the draft and the initial wave of signings. Now, it would be foolish to predict that Elliott will be in the Pro Bowl nine months later, like Smith, given the rarity of such things. In fact, while some undrafted rookies make the Buccaneers' roster almost every year, it's very difficult in May to predict which of the 20 or so possibilities it will be. Still, Elliott has a chance to turn in an underdog story nearly as remarkable as Smith's.
What makes Elliott's case so interesting is the path that led him to Tampa. Less than a year ago, he had yet to play in a single college football game, and now he's on an NFL roster, albeit the bloated offseason version of one. He obviously faces a steep climb in trying to take the next step to the 53-man roster, but that's a situation with which he is familiar.
"It's very exciting, especially coming from where I came from, the road that I had to take to get here," said Elliott after his first practice as a Buccaneer last Thursday. "But I thank God for it. It feels great; it's a dream come true."
His initial dream of playing at Florida State came true after his father, Jay, made a few phone calls to the Seminole athletic department and, on request, sent a DVD of Javien's highlights at Rutherford High in Panama City. That led to the younger Elliott getting a walk-on offer with no promises beyond the scout team. After three years of working on his academic eligibility at a junior college, Elliott finally walked on in 2014, but as expected did not see the field that year. His first college action came just last fall, first as a special-teamer and eventually as a contributor on defense. He even made six starts, contributing 37 tackles, one sack, one interception and two forced fumbles.
To Elliott, walking into One Buccaneer Place as an undrafted rookie feels a lot like walking on in Tallahassee. The first experience has given him confidence for the second one, and a blueprint of how to approach it.
"It's kind of the same situation, really: Trying out, making the team, signing, just doing the same thing over again," said Elliott. "Now it's really just going out here and impressing these coaches, letting them know that I can come out here and do the job that needs to be done.
"Just stay humble, try to stand out. Just be the player that you came here to be – work hard, separate yourself."
Elliott believes he caught the Bucs' eye at the FSU Pro Day. Tampa Bay scouts have spent a lot of time in Tallahassee the last two springs, first convincing themselves to take quarterback Jameis Winston first overall in the 2015 draft and this year taking a long look at kicker Roberto Aguayo. The Buccaneers traded up into the bottom of the second round to take Aguayo at #59 overall, the earliest pick the team has ever used on a kicker.
After a very impressive rookie season, Winston has the look of a long-term franchise quarterback in Tampa. Since drafting Aguayo, the team has released two kickers in Connor Barth and Patrick Murray, giving the rookie some pretty strong job security. Elliott can't really count on the same – at 5-11 and 176 pounds he's not a big corner, and the Bucs added three key players to that position in free agency and the draft – but he at least has a chance. If he's going to hold onto his spot into training camp, he'll need to make a good early impression.
"Just get in my playbook, learn everything I need to learn so I can go out on the field and make plays," said Elliott of his plans for making a mark. "My first day, I just did a lot of learning. But being at the school I came from, Florida State, we did a lot of high-level training. So I've just got to get used to learning my playbook."
Jay Elliott never could have guessed where his phone calls to Florida State would lead his son. Even a year ago, they hadn't earned Javien any playing time. Now he has an NFL jersey and a playbook and he's going to do his best to hold onto them. If he can, it would be a journey every bit as remarkable as the one Clifton Smith embarked on nearly a decade ago.
"I'm blessed – that's how I look at it," said Elliott. "Not too many people are able to say they did what I did. I'm definitely blessed to be here."