IT'S NO secret, the NFL trend is toward smaller, lighter, quicker defensive ends. A 6-5, 275-pounder like the Giants' Michael Strahan stands out these days, like a chrome-bumpered, tail-finned Cadillac with fender skirts.
Still, the Eagles might be pushing the lighter-and-smaller bit with Bryan Smith. In this week's NovaCare gathering for rookies and select vets, the third-round defensive end from McNeese State is easy to spot. Defensive line coach Pete Jenkins gathers his charges for a drill, and No. 63 looks like a safety who has wandered into the wrong group, maybe with his number on backwards.
Smith, who says he is up to 6-2, 241, after being listed 10 pounds lighter at the draft, is used to skepticism. He said he weighed 198 as a defensive end-tight end in high school in Newton, Texas, who was more into basketball and track than football, and 205 as a sophomore DE at McNeese.
In high school, Smith recalled, he had to be talked into going out for football by a coach, after his brother, Ryan, got a football scholarship to Stephen F. Austin. Bryan said he and his friends didn't play a lot of football growing up; when they did, they found themselves "tackling on rocks,'' he said.
"We came to realize that basketball would be a lot less painful,'' said Smith, who starred as a 6-2 basketball center.
But the rocks were less prevalent on the high school field, and Smith discovered a talent for pass-rushing. McNeese, which competes in what used to be called Division I-AA, wasn't put off by his size. Eventually, he tallied 31 sacks in 31 career college games.
Smith and Jenkins speak the same language - the defensive line coach wants strong, tough guys who know how to use their hands to fend off blockers. Jenkins zeroed in on Smith at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, and there is evidence the Steelers and Lions were similarly intrigued, though some experts had Smith going far later in the draft than the Eagles took him.
"If you get your hands on the offensive lineman before he gets his hands on you, you can dictate how everything goes,'' Smith said. "If he's just getting back in his [pass- blocking] stance and you've got your hands on him, you can push him over, or pull and rip through him, get his shoulders turned. [It's] like driving a car - if you've got your hands on the wheel, you can turn a car whichever way you want to go.''
Smith said Jenkins, known as a teacher during his long college coaching tenure, shows a lot of film of players he has coached, demonstrating the techniques he teaches.
"He'll pop in a film and show that it works - guys getting sacks, tackles for a loss, that kind of thing,'' Smith said.
At the combine, Jenkins said he thought Smith probably looked a bit like Trent Cole did in college. The Eagles drafted Cole in the fifth round in 2005. He notched 12 1/2 sacks last season and made the Pro Bowl.
Cole, currently listed at 6-3, 270, agreed with Smith that size was not the determining factor for a DE, though Cole did assert that he was closer to 250 than 231 when he was drafted. Cole said he was near 270 by his first training camp. Still, he wouldn't name a minimum weight for effective pass rushing.
"It's all heart. That's what it's all about, man - it's all heart . . . You get so used to fighting big guys. You don't have to be big to play defensive end, you have to learn how to use your hands and use your body - like I know how to position my body so I won't get pushed back,'' Cole said. "Learn how to get around that O-lineman, using your hands. If he gets his hands on you, you're done for. That's what it's about - heart and technique, that's what's going to get you there.''
Chris Clemons, the linebacker-turned-defensive-end the Birds signed as a free agent from the Raiders, is shaped a lot like Smith, at 6-2, 240. Clemons managed eight sacks last season as a part-time player.
"You've got some 340-, 350-pound offensive linemen; you're 240 pounds. At some point, he's going to get tired,'' Clemons said. He added that when he converted to defensive end in the pros, he found "you see a lot of other real small guys, too.''
Smith said he lacked the resources, including a paid meal plan, to gain weight effectively at McNeese State.
"I really didn't like taking supplements; I'm not a supplement guy,'' Smith said. He said that as he prepared for the draft, he reluctantly began taking protein.
"I did research on it, and certain supplements weaken the muscles, make it easier to tear them, easier to get hurt,'' Smith said. "I just didn't want to take the risk . . . protein doesn't do that. It's been working out for me, so far.''
Smith said he hopes he can get his weight to 250 over the next few months.
"To be close to 250, and still feel good and be able to run, and still feel athletic, I think that'd be a good size for me,'' he said.
Wide receiver Bill Sampy underwent surgery yesterday for a broken and dislocated left ankle, an Eagles spokesman said. No timetable was offered for Sampy's return. Sampy was injured running a drill on Tuesday . . . The full-team OTAs that start next week might be more important than usual for some players. The Eagles currently have 88 players listed on their 80-man roster, which is possible because they haven't signed any of their draftees. By July 21, when the first players report to training camp, the team would like to have signed the 10 guys drafted last month, which means eight guys here right now probably won't see Lehigh. In previous years, with six NFL Europe roster exemptions to play with, the Eagles rarely released more than one or two players before camp. *