Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice with the Jaguars on Tuesday.
Ryan Smith waited 16 months to play cornerback in an NFL game. Now that he's finally getting his shot, he's getting it in a big way.
It was worth the wait for Smith, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2016 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and told that he would be playing safety. Smith had started out as a safety at North Carolina Central, an FCS school that last had a player drafted in 2007, but switched to cornerback – the position he truly loves – as a junior.
As a Buccaneer rookie, Smith carved out a significant role on special teams but didn't get on the field at safety. At some point in the second half of the season, the coaching staff began using Smith at corner on the scout team, and the results were eye-opening. By season's end, it was officially decided that Smith would be moving back to cornerback in 2017.
Thus, even though he had already played in four preseason games and 14 regular-season games as a pro, the first time Smith took the field as a real, live NFL cornerback was the Buccaneers' 2017 preseason opener last Friday in Cincinnati. Which he started.
The Buccaneers consider Smith to be the primary candidate to serve as the team's third outside cornerback, the main backup to starters Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves. That would have been enough to get him significant time in the reserve-laden opener, but with Grimes currently sidelined by a non-serious leg injury, Smith was bumped up to a starting spot. When most of the defensive starters left the field against the Bengals, Smith stayed on and ran with the next group.
When it was done, he had played 49 defensive snaps, or 78% of the team's total, the most of any Buccaneer. Nobody else even saw 40 snaps. Smith logged seven more reps on special teams for a total of 56 snaps, the most for any of the 164 players who appeared in the game for both teams. What was it like being the workhorse of the night?
"It was fun," said Smith. "I had a lot of fun. It was a great learning experience, first of all. I just made the best of it. I can't wait for the next game, getting more comfortable, seeing different receivers. I just want all the experience I can get."
Well, the second week of the preseason is providing Smith with exactly that. The Buccaneers came home from Cincy then quickly turned around and headed up to Jacksonville, where they will play the Jaguars on Thursday night. Prior to that, the two teams held a pair of very useful joint practices, giving Smith a chance to see different offensive sets and go against such foes as Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Smith will likely start again on Thursday night with Grimes still sitting out, and the starters are expected to play most if not all of the first half.
"Definitely, the more looks I get the better," said Smith of enjoying the week in Jacksonville. "But, shoot, on our team we see the best in the league, so practice is always a good challenge. But it definitely helps to get different looks like this against another team."
Smith tied for the team lead in last Friday's game with five tackles. On Monday morning, during a two-hour practice in which both team's defenses seemed a bit ahead of the other side, Smith turned in several more noticeable plays, including an interception of a tipped pass and a pass-defensed on consecutive plays in a full-team drill.
It was a grueling practice for all involved but, again, Smith is eager to soak up as many chances to play cornerback as he can get right now. He knows he's still a bit behind on the NFL learning curve.
"I was kind of tired, but you've just got to push through because nobody cares if you're tired," he said. "It was fun, though. I always have fun out there. Every day is a learning experience, and the more reps I get the more comfortable I get."
Smith is clearly enjoying what he's doing. Had he remained at safety, he surely would have made the most of it and still lived his NFL dream. But he admits that he always felt like a cornerback at heart, so he's pleased to have the chance to prove he can play the position. If he's successful in doing so, it will have been worth the wait for the Buccaneers, as well.
"I did, I did [remain a cornerback at heart], but it is what is," said Smith. "I'm just happy that I'm at corner now and I'm getting the reps I'm getting. The coaches are getting a chance to see what I can do out there. I'm just getting started."