What's in a name?
We know if we hammer this point in any further, the cliche police will arrest us - but we will.
University of Southern California wide receiver Steven Smith has probably heard about his older namesake of the Carolina Panthers half a million times, but the comparisons are not completely unfounded. There's not much to not like about the three-sport high school standout that was a member of the University of Southern California's recent championship teams.
As a true freshman in 2003, Smith caught 17 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. While he missed five games during his sophomore year due to a broken leg, he also started seven games in a system littered with potential NFL stars. In 2006, Smith, sometimes referred to as Steven to limit confusion with his professional counterpart, was voted team Most Valuable Player on a Trojans team that finished fourth in the nation.
Smith is a natural athlete; he has excellent control over his body and possesses respectable speed for a receiver. He ran the 40 in 4.44 seconds at the NFL Combine. Consequently, one of Smith's best assets is his ability to adjust his body to make difficult catches, especially in the red zone. Another important point about Smith is that he is very elusive with the ball and can make defenders miss in the open field, leading to great amounts of additional yardage after receptions. He is very tough and therefore not afraid to run routes down the middle, catch in traffic or block.
Smith is constantly able to find separation in the short passing game, which explains why it seems like he is always open. Smith could be a dangerous receiving option, because he is able to run the short slip screen so well while being able to adjust to long downfield throws.
It may be Smith's extensive experience, however, that attracts the focus of team executives and coaches come Draft Day. He has played in his fair share of big bowl and rivalry games during his collegiate career; playing at Southern California should have give him much experience with pressure.
Amazingly, Smith has still managed to improve every year, recording a number of huge receiving totals during his senior year. Of course, playing on the same championship team as highly touted prospect wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart certainly doesn't hurt, either.
Smith possesses a few shortcomings that separate him from the first tier of wide receivers available at the draft. Despite his solid time at the combine, Smith does not play at the same speed; he lacks explosion in his step. He also doesn't possess great size at 6-foot, 197 pounds. There might be questions concerning his character, as he once broke the jaw of former roommate Dominique Byrd in an off-field incident over a video game.
Another issue of concern is Smith's ability to run precise routes. Smith has occasionally rounded off cuts despite fluidly moving throughout the pattern. He needs some work on reading defenses and making mid-play adjustments to different types of coverage. Teams will probably need to work with him to increase his game speed and improve his route-running techniques.
From a blocking standpoint, Smith needs to become more accurate with his hand positioning to gain the leverage his frame doesn't provide him. His downfield blocking is more respectable than his blocking near the line of scrimmage.
These issues may not have been fully addressed during his collegiate career, because opposing defenses never focused on him as a No. 1 option; Smith has played in the shadow of former teammate Mike Williams and fellow draft prospect Jarrett. However, to succeed in the intense spotlight of the professional level of play, Smith must take some time to fix these weaknesses.
Smith's outstanding performance in recent showings in front of NFL scouts has led to a rise in his draft stock. He should expect to be selected anywhere from the middle of the second round to early third round by a team seeking a potential second or third receiving option. Prospective teams include the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers.
About James Li
James Li has been a KFFL contributor since 2006.
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