Opportunity knocked, Seahawks’ Smith answered

RENTON — Malcolm Smith knows a thing or two about patience. So as much as he would have preferred to be an impact player from the day the Seahawks drafted him, he has been OK with waiting for his moment.

In the past couple of weeks, that moment has presented itself with Leroy Hill battling an ankle injury, and Smith has certainly taken advantage of his chance. Making his first career start, Smith impressed his coaches filling in for Hill at weakside linebacker in Chicago. He played so well in fact, that Pete Carroll decided to give Hill another week to rest his ankle, starting Smith again against Arizona even though Hill was active and available.

Hill is now healthy and back to practicing, but Smith’s strong play the last two weeks means Carroll once again gets to talk about competition.

“(Hill) will split time with Malcolm Smith,” Carroll said, referring to the plan in practice this week. “That is a competitive situation for our guys and we’re thrilled about it. Malcolm has played really well, and we’ll see how the week goes.”

For Smith, a seventh-round pick last year, being patient is nothing new. Back when he was at USC, he had to patiently wait for doctors and trainers to figure out what was wrong with him, why he was unable to keep down food, leading to rapid weight loss. Smith was eventually diagnosed with achalasia, a rare esophagus disorder that hinders swallowing. Surgery and a special diet have helped Smith get control of his condition, but it is one he still deals with, and one that, wouldn’t you know it, tests his patience. You see, even if he does everything right, eats all the right foods, even if he maintains a proper eating schedule, his condition requires him to eat slowly. Very slowly.

“I need time to eat, a lot of time,” he said. “My dad says I could never be in the military, because you have to eat fast. I take my time and just pick the right food.”

Still, that’s better than when, a few years earlier, he didn’t know what was going on.

“It was awkward man,” he said. “I would eat by myself because I didn’t want anybody to see me. It was weird. I asked questions and nobody knew at first.”

Concerns about Smith’s health and durability — at 226 pounds, he is a bit undersized for an NFL linebacker — led to another wait, this time on draft weekend, but he never doubted that he would get his shot and take advantage.

“I always just kept my eyes on the dream,” said Smith, who scored his first career touchdown Sunday, recovering a muffed punt in the end zone. “It’s kind of just been something that I almost knew was going to happen. I try not to waver at all. It was just something I went through, and everybody has a story of something they’ve been through, so it was just one of those things.”

If Smith does end up winning a permanent spot in the starting lineup, he’ll be just the latest late-round gem on a defense full of them. The Seahawks have built one of the top defenses in the league without spending huge amounts of money on free agents or a bunch of first-round draft picks.

Seattle’s other starting linebackers are fourth-round pick K.J. Wright and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-round pick. Seattle’s best pass rusher, Chris Clemons, came into the league as an undrafted free agent, and came to Seattle with a fourth-round pick for Darryl Tapp. Richard Sherman, a fifth-round pick a year ago, is quickly becoming one of the game’s best cornerbacks, while his fellow starter, Brandon Browner, was signed out of the Canadian Football League.

With Browner suspended, Walter Thurmond, a fourth-round pick, has stepped into a starting role, and the backups behind them, both of whom the Seahawks are very high on, are a pair of sixth-rounders, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And yes, free safety Earl Thomas was picked in the top half of the first round in 2010, but fellow starting safety Kam Chancellor, a Pro Bowl player last season, was picked in the fifth round that same year.

It’s way too early to say if Smith will join the long list of Seahawks defenders who have gone from draft-day afterthoughts to key contributors to a very good defense, but he’s done nothing to hurt the perception that Carroll and general manager John Schneider have a real knack for finding and developing talent on the third day of the draft.

“It’s really fun to see the maturity of Malcolm,” linebackers coach Ken Norton said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with Malcolm.”

Injury update

Receiver Sidney Rice sat out practice for the second day in a row because of a foot injury, but was no longer wearing a walking boot. Cornerback Walter Thurmond sat out with a hamstring injury after being limited Wednesday. Defensive end Red Bryant (foot), safety Kam Chancellor (groin) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (hamstring) also sat out Thursday.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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