The first time Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley noticed Elerson Smith was at the school’s annual football camp. Scanning the attendees, Farley noticed this stringy beanpole of a camper who stood well above everyone else.
That made Farley pay attention.
“First thing I saw was the 6-6 from a distance, of course,” Farley told Big Blue View.
“I started watching the big frame and next I know we broad jump and he hits about a 10-4 broad jump. Anything over 10 foot takes a heck of an athlete ... Man, he could jump out of the gym.”
Farley was convinced. Even though he thought the 190-pound Smith looked “really frail, skinny” he wanted to see what he, his coaching staff, and a college weight-training program could do for Smith.
“I looked at the frame, I looked at the power and so we brought him in to become a defensive end hoping we could build his frame up,” Farley said. “A couple of years later he just took off and he became a natural pass rusher.”
Smith, of course, developed so much that he is now an NFL player, drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Giants, a team hungry for players who can get after opposing quarterbacks.
Smith red-shirted, then barely played in 2017, registering 3 tackles, a half-sack and two passes defensed. In 2018, there was a hint of what was to come — 7.5 sacks. In 2019, an explosion of inflicting punishment on quarterbacks — 14.0 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, 5 forced fumbles, 4 passes defensed. Smith didn’t get a chance to play in 2020 as the Missouri Valley Conference moved its season to the spring, causing him to declare for the NFL.
Did Farley think that frail high school kid he spotted standing above the crowd at his football camp could turn into this?
“I could have never forecast ... no, to where he’s at today? No, I couldn’t have projected that,” Farley said.
Farley thought that if the school could help Smith gain enough weight that he could become a productive player.
“What I didn’t perceive happening was that speed and quickness going to the level that it is today to counter his size. He’s got such a stride to him. What’s really nice about him is he seems so reserved and calm. I want that tenacity, I want tenacity in football,” Farley said.
“As a high school kid you didn’t see that, but you hoped that was within him and there’s no question that it’s there. Put him on a field, you see it every day. You saw it at the Senior Bowl.
“He fears nothing, and now he believes he can achieve anything.”
The weight room has a lot to do with it.
Smith didn’t know what he was doing in the weight room when he arrived at Northern Iowa.
“We had to teach him how to bench, teach him how to squat to build that strength,” Farley said.
‘When you put him on a power clean bar and deal with a throw the hips and generate all the power between your legs and your hips and your shoulders all at the same time he was a natural.”
Smith isn’t a skinny, frail kid any more. He’s now a 252-pound 22-year-old who owns the Northern Iowa record for weight lifted in the power clean.
“He was such a natural at taking that big frame and pulling all those muscles to fire at the same time to create the power. That’s pass-rushing. That’s his unique-ness, and now he’s got the size to go with it,” Farley said. “He’s got a great opportunity with the Giants.”
“I thought I was good enough. I knew once I got the size, I’d be able to play pretty well. I knew there were opportunities out of Northern Iowa,” says Smith.
“But it was going to take a lot of work.”
In his first videoconference with New York media, Smith described that work:
“I’ve had to take advantage of each day early on when I wasn’t getting a lot of acknowledgement or recognition,” he said. “It was a process. I was just kind of working in the dark and just making sure that I was getting the most out of every day.”
Not playing in 2020
Smith wanted to play for the Panthers in 2020. The pandemic got in the way. The Missouri Valley Conference postponed its season until spring. Smith considered the transfer portal, thinking maybe a season at a bigger school would boost his draft stock. Ultimately, he decided to declare for the NFL and keep working behind the scenes, hoisting those weights to beef up his body.
“It’s not the worst thing that could have happened to me. I just tried to go with the flow and understand that it is what it was and I had no control over the season being canceled,’ Smith said. “So, I just wanted to make sure that I was making the most out of my days and continuing to work toward the Senior Bowl and our Pro Day.”
Not playing in 2020 was a “double-edged sword” for Smith, Farley thought.
“He would have been the FCS Player of the Year had he gotten to play this year,” Farley said. “I believe his stock would have even been higher and I believe what round he went in had the ability to go higher had he gotten to play this year.”
On the other hand, there was nothing standing between Smith and the weight room. The result? A player who is far bigger, stronger and faster than the 2019 version NFL teams had been watching on film.
“When this is all said and done I really believe the year off has put him in a position that his ceiling rose higher than what it was going in,” Farley said.
“Because of being off he had the time to put on the weight, get to the 265, still be lean and fast and now he’s fully fresh and ready to go after a year off, if you want to call it that. Yet he put all this time into training with one purpose — the NFL. That’s the upside.”
Importance of the Senior Bowl
Before the Senior Bowl in February, no one had seen Smith play since 2019. And that wasn’t the version of Smith they would see in Mobile. That was a skinny 225-235-pound guy who could rush the passer, but also get pushed around in the run game on occasion. In Mobile, he showed up weighing a stout 262 pounds. The other thing is, no one had seen him work against top-level competition. Then, he did stuff like this:
“It was huge,” Smith said of his week at the Senior Bowl. “I think at that point, it was the only film I had where I played around 260. All my other film I was around 240 or 235. I just wanted to show teams that I could play with the new weight and to show them I was working hard on my body and my game and that I am able to contribute to an NFL team at this point. It was an important week because I didn’t have the film like everyone else had from the 2020 season.”
Giants Director of College Scouting Chris Pettit admitted that, as it often seems to be with the Giants, what they saw from Smith at the Senior Bowl was a critical factor in their decision to select him.
“I think there’s a lot of potential. The biggest thing with the smaller school guys, we always start at step one, do they dominate that level. They have to dominate that level of competition to get in the conversation,” Pettit said. “And the great thing about Elerson that, again, reference the Senior Bowl again, but we got to see him on the same playing field with guys from Power Five schools and the higher levels and he fit right in. He competed his butt off and looked the part. You got to compare apples-to-apples there. That was a great venue for us.
“There were times when he had to play a Division I team. He played Iowa State this year, played over 90 plays in that game and competed to the last whistle and it was really impressive to see.”
Smith may not have had game film against a lot of elite offensive tackles. He did, though, spend every day at Northern Iowa practicing against Spencer Brown, a 6-foot-8, 311-pound behemoth chosen in the third round by the Buffalo Bills.
“I think they helped each other become a third- and fourth-round draft pick. I think it’s a great analog because they had to go pass rush against each other. They made each other better,” Farley said. “Spencer would grab Elerson [after practice] and they’d go off in the corner and they’d get more reps in as far as working different angles, just trying to help each other be better players. There’s no question they’ve made each other better in the time they’ve been here.”
Where he fits with the Giants
It might have surprised some that the Giants selected Smith after grabbing edge rusher Azeez Ojulari in Round 2. With Ojulari and Smith, the return of Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines from injury, the addition of Ryan Anderson as a free agent, and second-year players like Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin, the Giants have a crowd at the edge spot.
“There’s a lot of competition there,” said GM Dave Gettleman. “At the end of the day, it’s about competition. It’s about competition. And we just feel like with those two draft picks, we’ve upgraded.”
Giants coach Joe Judge often says there is no such thing as a pro-ready player right out of college, whether it’s a big-school or small-school player. Pettit said Saturday all of the players “are going to have to come in and develop and become pros.”
Ask Farley and he will tell you he believes Smith already has a professional attitude.
“He’s very mature. He’s not a guy, you think of some college kid running around enjoying weekends, enjoying the summer. That’s not Elerson,” Farley said. “Elerson’s a family-orientated person, he keeps to himself. I call it a professional personality is what he comes off as because he always looks so sincere and so controlled. That’s just who he is.”
Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but Gettleman said Smith “definitely does” have the ability to develop into a quality NFL pass rusher.
Farley believes the bet on Smith’s potential is one the Giants will end up winning:
“I’ll tell you what — for the Giants, they’re going to win the battle on this one because the timing of this really turned out good for the Giants and for Elerson.”