RICHMOND — Last year when Junior Galette went out for the season with an Achilles injury, Preston Smith, then a rookie, felt the pressure on him turn up just a little bit.
He knew that he would be relied on more but he was still a backup behind Trent Murphy. That was the same role that he had played all offseason; the Redskins had no idea that they were going to land Galette until they brought him in shortly after the start of training camp.
This year, Murphy was moved to the defensive line and Smith and Galette were going to mix and match in different packages to provide the maximum effectiveness on the pass rush. But now Smith is the unquestioned lead dog at right outside linebacker.
A year ago he may not have been prepared to take on the added responsibility. Earlier this year, defensive coordinator Joe Barry said that Smith was “young and immature”. He didn’t know how to prepare to be an NFL starter.
This prompted Barry to call the rookie in for some very blunt words. “You won’t last three years in his league if you continue to prepare and if you act the way you act,” Barry recalled telling the rookie.
It took a few talks but things clicked. He registered six sacks in the last four games including one for a safety in the playoff game against the Packers. “I think the light has come on,” said Barry. He has so much natural God-given ability. just size and length alone, that when he understands, if he plays a certain way and prepares a certain way every single day, he’s got the potential to be really special.”
The light will need to remain on this year. With Galette out after they had counted on him all offseason the pressure falls on Smith to get the job done. He thinks he’s ready.
“I've been working all offseason to start as strong as I finished this past season,” Smith said after practice on Thursday. “I've just been preparing for moments to step in there and show the team what I have.”
He thinks he is much more prepared to be then man at his position than he would have been a year ago.
“I feel like I'm 10 times more ready,” said Smith. “My body feels a whole lot greater than I did last year.”
It’s hard to figure just what to expect from Smith this year. In the first 13 games last year he had three sacks. Then he had his explosion late in the season. Continuing on that December-January pace projects to 24 sacks, which would break the single-season NFL record. He is probably not going to do that, so we can look for something in between his early-season pace and his torrid finish to the season. Ten sacks is the low end of the expectations, anything in the vicinity of 15 would quality as a pleasant surprise.