The Relative Athletic Score is a metric used to gauge athletic abilities relative to position. Since 1987, there have been 1,371 defensive ends measured. Of those, Elerson Smith ranks 40th all-time.
Great. But does the fourth-round pick from Northern Iowa pass the Bryce Paup test?
"Even in the NFL, there's about five percent that can get away with that," said Paup, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and the 1995 AP Defensive Player of the Year who now coaches defensive linemen at UNI, his alma mater. "But eventually it catches up with them, and if they don't use every aspect to get better, they're going to get passed up in a hurry."
Paup took a holistic approach in the physical and mental transformation of the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder with a 41.5-inch vertical, the highest of any defensive end in the 2021 class. He arrived on campus in 2016 weighing only 190 pounds – "just a bean pole" – and was originally tried at tight end. Paup joined the Panthers in 2018 and they tried Smith at defensive end.
"The first time I had him run a stunt where the defensive end loops back in underneath the defensive tackle, he stopped," Paup recalled on Big Blue Kickoff Live. "It was just like a calf seeing a new fence or a deer in the headlights. I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to take a while.' But he just didn't know what he didn't know. He was very raw. In high school (Smith was a first-team all-state selection as a tight end and second-team at defensive end at Minneapolis South), they just let him go, come off the edge, and he just beat most people with speed. He was so long and quick that a lot of high school kids couldn't even stay with him. The transformation has been pretty spectacular."
On the physical side, Paup credited Northern Iowa's strength and conditioning coach Jed Smith. Prior to UNI, Jed Smith was the explosive strength training coach for the Minnesota Vikings and assisted with the Wild NHL team. He is also heavily involved in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
While the rest of the staff set benchmarks for Smith in his physical progression, Paup tackled the player's emotional maturation.
"There was a lot of reasons of why I was a great football player, and a lot of them had to do with my insecurity and the chip on my shoulder because of things that happened to me in the past," said Paup, a sixth-round pick by the Packers in 1990 who also played for the Bills and Jaguars before ending his career with the Vikings in 2000. "I worked through all that stuff and I want to help these kids get whole, a whole lot quicker. It's been fun to watch the transformation – not just on the field but emotionally and as a human being."
It wasn't fun in the beginning, though.
Paup recalled the third week of the 2018 season, when the coaches had slated Smith to start because of an injury to another player. Thursday is "script day" at practice, and the defense was preparing for an offense that liked to pin defensive ends and load up the quarterback's right side with three wide receivers and sometimes a running back.
Paup instructed his defensive linemen on how to handle it.
"When that happens, the slot machine just hit three cherries. And it's dinging, it's coming," Paup said. "When that sprint-out is coming, you're going to get pinned, so don't take the okey-doke and go underneath the tight end or the running back. We had about three of those scripted in Thursday's practice, and wouldn't you know, every time he went underneath either the tight end or the running back and got pinned. Finally, I just had enough. I yanked him out and I said, 'What the heck is going on? You haven't watched any film at all, have you?' He dropped his eyes. 'No.'"
The same thing happened two weeks later in preparation for North Dakota State, the FCS equivalent of Alabama who also liked to sprint out with trips to the right. Smith didn't learn his lesson. With his eyes down again, he admitted to not watching film.
Smith played just two snaps on that Saturday.
"It's not whether I like you if you're going to play or not," Paup said. "It's whether I trust you because there's more people that are counting on me doing my job, putting someone out there that's going to be 85-90 percent correct every down so they can put their head on their pillow at night and say, 'You know what, I'm trusting that the other coaches are going to put a good product out there and we're going to win a majority of the time.'"
Smith came into the facility on Sunday. He was mad, but the message was finally received.
"From that point on, he started coming up and I started coaching him individually," Paup said of Smith, who went on to finish top 10 in 12 different statistical categories in program history. "The transformation was pretty astounding. … There's more talent walking the streets than is in the NFL because it's not just based on talent. You've got to be able to put it all together – mentally, emotionally, socially, physically, and be able to be a whole package. A lot of players can't do all that."
View photos of Giants fourth-round pick Elerson Smith.