(CBS Local)- The NFL Draft is a little over a month away, and despite no longer being a public event, it is still on the minds of sports fans everywhere. Hundreds of prospects are hoping to hear their names called the weekend of April 23rd-25th, and Raleigh, North Carolina native and N.C. State defensive end James Smith-Williams is hoping to be the latest in a long line of Wolfpack pass rushers to make an impact at the NFL level.
A former three-star recruit out of Millbrook High School, Smith-Williams waited for his time with the Wolfpack before breaking out with six sacks in 11 games during his junior season. His senior year was hampered by injuries, and he’s out to prove that he has put the injuries behind him and is ready to make an impact in the NFL.
Smith-Williams has proved to be a well rounded athlete, interning at IBM which then extended him an offer that will be there whenever his football career ends. Though that does help with a sense of stability, Smith-Williams says that his goal is the NFL, and he will do everything he can to prove he belongs at the top level. This is his story, in his words, with some light editing.
I have been playing football for a long time. I was a big kid, so they got me started early. I dabbled in every sport growing up. I used to fence, I did some equestrian, I’ve been out there, tried everything. But once I got to high school, the big focus was football.
In my junior year of high school, I found my home at defensive end/outside linebacker, and things really took off. I had 70 tackles with 10 for loss my junior year at Millbrook, and I started to get my first couple of offers. Then, you start running a little bit and the times were really good in the 40, and that’s when you realize, ‘okay, there’s something here.’
As I was getting ready to go to college, football actually wasn’t the original plan. I was leaving to go to Columbia for med school, that was the whole deal it was what I was going to do. Then N.C. State offered me later in the cycle. I figured I might as well see what it was all about and go visit. Once I got there, I fell in love with the culture of the program. It’s a tough place. They told me up front, everything is earned here, nothing is given. That held true throughout my career. I could see the talent they had coming in, saw where it was headed, and I wanted to jump on board.
When I first got to N.C. State, I was a safety because I was on the lighter side at around 196 pounds and obviously you can’t throw me up front right away. Going from 196 to 265 isn’t an overnight process. I took a redshirt my freshman year and used that time to grow into being a linebacker before eventually growing into being a defensive end. Our strength and conditioning staff, they know what they’re talking about when it comes to nutrition and lifting. I had to wrap my mind around, if you want to be a defensive end, you have to be built like one, eat like one and work like one. I put in that time during the course of my first couple of years, and it all started to pay off in my junior year.
The biggest thing that took getting used to was offensive linemen in the ACC are pretty athletic. Everybody just watched Mekhi Becton from Louisville run a 5.1 in the 40 at 360 pounds, so he can move, and everybody is like that. That was one of the biggest things I had to learn. You’re not just going to come in and beat them with straight skill.
It’s about technique, speed, power and putting that all together to win one-on-one matchups. I took those first couple of years to get stronger and get my bearings within the defense. N.C. State runs a fairly complex defense. There are no one-word play calls. We have checks that are always in play as well. Once you get your confidence in knowing the defense, then you can focus in on your craft and slow down the game.
To have that work then show up on the field in 2018 was awesome. (Editor’s note: James tied for the team lead with six sacks, nine tackles for loss, a forced fumble and fumble recovery) The dedication, the hard work, staying diligent and staying focused all paid off. That, for me, was an awesome experience.
This past year was a tough one for both the program and for me. I had an ankle injury, and it hurt not to be out on the field, but things happen like that sometimes. I think the lessons you learn from the five years that I spent in college, the guys that I got to learn leadership from, is the biggest thing. This past year obviously wasn’t how the program wanted things to go or how I wanted things to go. But that’s just a bump in the long journey.
Because I was hurt and missed a large chunk of my senior year, I knew the deal going into Indy. I knew I had to have a good Combine, because I knew people were trying to write me off. That’s their goal is to see everything wrong with you as a prospect, and you have to prove that you belong. I knew the Combine was a great chance to prove people wrong.
After training my butt off with Brent Callaway and the rest of the staff out at Exos, I put together a performance at the combine that I was really proud of. That has helped me a lot in terms of the interest teams are showing in me. It has really picked up since that Combine performance.
While the on-field drills were part of it, the Combine is a long week, and I think the coolest part for me was to sit there and talk ball with NFL linebacker coaches and defensive line coaches. And I feel like they respected what I knew about the game, my football IQ from what we did at N.C. State.
I thrive off being physical. I’m going to set the edge, hit the offensive tackle in the mouth. On the pass-rushing side, I like to get after the quarterback and harass them as well. But I really take a lot of joy and pride in setting the edge. It’s a lot of fun to me.
I’m a Raleigh guy, so the Carolina Panthers would be a dream team to be selected by. I loved Steve Smith, I thought he was the greatest competitor to ever live. In my head, he is like the NFL equivalent of Kobe Bryant. I watched all of those teams growing up with Julius Peppers, he’s one of the greatest players to ever play defensive end. Now, it’s very different, I’m not a fan of anybody, just whoever is going to employ me next.