- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ASHBURN — Preston Smith cannot recall exactly when, but there was a moment this season when the harsh reality hit him. The Washington Redskins‘ rookie outside linebacker realized that if he wanted to stay on the field, he needed to do more than just rely on his athletic ability.

When the Redskins drafted the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Mississippi State standout in the second round, his physical traits were a big reason why.

“You could see the athleticism on tape, no doubt about it,” general manager Scot McCloughan said in May. “He’s a unique athlete. He’s impressive.”

There was more that drew the Redskins to Smith, like his natural pass-rushing instincts that allowed him to chase the opposing quarterback from wherever he lined up on the field. In Smith’s first few games with the Redskins, however, he said those instincts were lost.

“At the beginning, I was just trying to figure out a flow, trying to figure out myself, what works for me,” said Smith, who rotates with Trent Murphy opposite Ryan Kerrigan.

“Half the time, when you’re not as confident in what you do, you don’t play full speed like you should. You’re second-guessing yourself. You don’t know if you’re doing something wrong, so that hinders your game and messes you up. I had to stop and sit down and focus, make more time for me to go through my playbook, get familiar with things and watch more film. I’ve got to be critical of myself when I watch film, as hard on myself as much as coaches are on me.”

Now, that hesitation in Smith’s step is fading. He’s playing with more confidence, which was clear in Sunday’s win against the Buffalo Bills. Smith had his fourth sack of the season when he dropped quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the fourth quarter for a five-yard loss.

He had other plays that were equally as impressive, ones that showcased both his athleticism and his instincts. In the first quarter, Smith barely broke his stride as he hurdled running back LeSean McCoy, who tried to cut-block him as he rushed from the edge. Taylor, who saw Smith barreling toward him, was already on the move. Smith got his hand on Taylor’s shoulder, but the speedy quarterback slipped from his grasp. As Taylor raced to pick up a first down, Smith continued his pursuit until cornerback Will Blackmon knocked Taylor out of bounds.

Smith’s progress has not gone unnoticed by the Redskins‘ coaching staff, but the next challenge is for the rookie to make such plays on a consistent basis. This late in the season, pass rushing is at a premium, especially as the Redskins try to secure the NFC East title on Saturday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I think now he’s starting to get off the snap a little bit quicker, play with a little bit more speed and aggression,” coach Jay Gruden said. “That’s the one thing we keep trying to harp on. He’s just got to play more violently with his hands and really get off on the snap count. He’s finding a role. He’s finding a niche. He’s doing a good job. You’ve got to continue to get better though. These teams that can throw the ball over the joint, we have to have consistent pass rush and he’s had his flashes but we need more consistent production from him but we like that he is improving. That’s a big step.”

Part of the transition from college to the professional level, according to Smith, was realizing that he needed to make these strides on his own. That meant not just being more diligent with his film study, but challenging himself to connect the dots between what he saw on tape and what the coaches were telling him in practice.

“They can’t watch me every play, because if they watch me every play they might not be able to fix the rest of the defense,” Smith said. “Other times, I need to look at myself. When I’m out on the field, they’ll be a play the [coaches] felt I gave a good effort, but I’ll still go back and watch if I felt like I have a question on it.”

Smith has also tried to absorb as much as he can from defensive veterans such as nose tackles Terrance Knighton and Kedric Golston or defensive backs Will Blackmon and Dashon Goldson. Left tackle Trent Williams, whose locker is just a few stalls away from Smith at Redskins Park, has also imparted some wise words of advice to the rookie.

Williams, like Smith, was plunged into a key role as soon as he was drafted without being able to test the waters.

“Every time I had a chance to offer my two cents, I never hesitated to let him know,” Williams said. “I was thrown right into the fire. I didn’t know if I was ready to compete or not. I look at him the same way. He came in and now he’s a guy we lean on to put pressure on the quarterback.

“I’m just trying to instill the confidence in him to use what God gave him and be that player we all know he can be. He’s starting to have confidence in his moves. He’s starting to use them and starting to put pressure on the quarterback. Once he puts it together like we know he will and can, the sky’s the limit for him.”

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