By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
RENTON — A year ago Kevin Smith was clocking in at Fed/Ex in Los Angeles, loading and unloading delivery trucks as he contemplated his future.
Fast forward 12 months and Smith is getting ready to suit up for his first NFL game.
It’s been a dramatic turnaround for the former University of Washington wide receiver, who he was signed to the Seattle Seahawks’ 53-man roster from the practice squad on Tuesday.
“It means a lot,” Smith said Wednesday at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “You’re out there for the practice days, for those three days and competing with the (first team) defense and getting them prepared and seeing the offense getting prepared. It’s just really a dream come true coming Sunday that you really get to play in that one game, that first game.”
The Seahawks made room for the 6-foot, 218-pound Smith by waiving receiver and Super Bowl breakout performer Chris Matthews on Tuesday. Matthews had four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in last season’s Super Bowl, so Seattle clearly believes in Smith to part ways with Matthews.
“We want to give Kevin a chance to play,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. “Kevin is a very versatile player, he plays all three (receiver) spots for us and we like what we can do with him in special teams. We thought it was time to give him a chance.”
Smith is one of those true stories of the power of persistence. Following a solid but unspectacular career at UW from 2010-13, he called NFL teams himself in an attempt to plead his case for the 2014 draft. Smith went unselected, but that didn’t prevent him from continuing to pursue his NFL dreams, signing as a rookie free agent first with the Arizona Cardinals, then the Jacksonville Jaguars, and finally the Seahawks. He was released by all three teams.
After Smith was cut by the Seahawks at the end of training camp last season, he returned home to Compton, Calif., and spent the winter hauling packages in a warehouse instead of hauling in passes on the football field. But even then Smith didn’t give up hope.
“I was going to keep pushing, no matter what, for football,” Smith said. “If it wasn’t for me, I was going to try and find a way to go on with my life. But football was always first and I knew I loved it.”
The Seahawks called back following the season and Smith was re-signed and given another chance to impress the coaches. Smith grabbed that opportunity with both hands. He was one of Seattle’s better performers during the preseason, both as a receiver and on special teams. He caught six passes for 61 yards, averaged 14.8 yards on five punt returns and 40.5 yards on two kick returns. He even made two tackles on kick coverage.
It’s that versatility, on both offense and on special teams, that intrigued the Seahawks most.
“He’s very versatile,” Carroll said. “He knows all the positions, which is really important. Especially when we’re down on numbers, having flexibility is really more important than maybe a guy that could do one position well. So his value jumped up there. He’s tough, he’s got a great catching range, he’s very competitive, and the fact that he adds the special teams, too, in some ways that can help us right now are all part of it.”
Smith didn’t earn a spot on Seattle’s 53-man roster following the preseason, but he was one of the first players signed to the Seahawks’ practice squad. That’s where he spent the first 10 weeks of the season, helping serve in whatever way the team required — to such great effect that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell began calling Smith, “One-a-day,” for his penchant for making a big play at every practice. That was enough for Seattle to decide he deserved a shot to show what he can do in a game.
“It’s amazing for him,” fellow receiver Doug Baldwin said. “It’s an opportunity and he’s earned it. You see it every day in practice, he’s always busting his tail, whether he’s getting in there with the first offense or he’s working with the scout team — sometimes he’s out there playing scout team defensive back. He’s put in the work.
“One of the things that stood out to our coaches, we have a receivers test we take before every game,” Baldwin continued, “and our coaches were saying his grade was as high as the starters every week. So that says a lot, that he takes it seriously in the work that he puts into it. He’s definitely earned it.”
Smith took the place of Matthews, who was never able to build upon his Super Bowl performance, managing just four catches for 54 yards in nine games this season.
“He’s gone now,” Carroll said, acknowledging Matthews’ performance in the Super Bowl, but admitting those type of plays weren’t happening this season. “He’s out. He busted his tail, he was a hard worker and all of that. We just wanted to make this move to get Kevin the shot to move up and see how he would do.
“I think (giving practice squad players a chance) has always been important,” Carroll added. “If the central theme is competition, then you have to do what you say. We’ve always tried to stand for that and give guys opportunities to show what they could do, sense when that hunger is really right for them to take advantage of the opportunity and let them excel. That’s always been some of it. But if you say that you need to act on it.”
It’s also up to the practice squad players to force the team to make these type of decisions. Smith forced his way in, and now he gets the chance to prove he belongs.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.