After a brutally hot 90-minute practice on Monday, Wendell Smallwood had to make his way from an autograph tent across two football fields to the JUGS machine where the running backs were catching balls.
Smallwood, still in full uniform, sprinted across the fields, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that in either of his first two NFL seasons there is no way he would have done that. No way he could have done that.
Smallwood, the Eagles’ third-year running back out of West Virginia, is learning to play football but more importantly he’s learning how to stay healthy.
Nobody has ever questioned his ability. Only his ability to stay healthy.
So Smallwood, who just turned 24, spent the offseason learning how to take care of himself.
This is a very deep, very competitive group of Eagles running backs. It’s not enough for Smallwood to flash on the field. He has to prove to his coaches that he can stay healthy or he has no chance to make the roster.
“It takes a while to really know your body,” Smallwood said. “Right now, I think I’ve been doing pretty good on it. Just staying on top of things. I learned that even when you’re feeling good, you still have to stay on top of things.
“There’s things you have to always look for. Knowing what you’re feeling and where you’re feeling it. If you know your, body if something’s not right, be on top of it.
“That’s something I’ve definitely learned these past two years. I can tell a major difference where I am now compared to the last few years. Just knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, what I should be doing, what works for me, what doesn’t work for me.”
Smallwood hurt his knee late in 2016 and missed the last month of the season and then last year hurt his knee against the Chargers in Week 4 and played in only four games the rest of the year. He didn’t dress for any of the playoff games.
When he’s healthy? He’s a solid back.
In five career games when he’s gotten at least 10 carries, he’s rushed 65 times for 302 yards, a 4.6 yards per carry average.
But his career is really at a crossroads. Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles are locks to make the roster, Donnel Pumphrey looks like a different guy from last year, and Matt Jones and Josh Adams are also in the mix.
“I’ve got to prove I can stay healthy and I’ve got to be more consistent in my playing,” Smallwood said.
“They know what I can do, they know how I can do it. So it’s like, stay healthy and keep doing it, don’t stop.
“Don’t do it one day and then don’t do it the next day. Do it every day. Dominate. Get better. Stay healthy. That’s the huge thing with me. It’s not about the ability, it’s about staying healthy and being there every day. That’s what I’ve got to do.”
So far, so good.
Smallwood is quietly having a very good training camp. He looks fast and strong, and he hasn’t missed a single rep because of an injury.
But the real test begins Thursday night, when the Eagles open the preseason against the Steelers at the Linc.
Smallwood knows he has a lot of work to do if he’s going to survive.
“Every year it’s been like that,” he said. “Got to ball out, keep them guys believing in me. I know they believe I can do it, but I have to leave no doubt.
“Be consistent. Don’t give them any reason to doubt what I’m capable of doing.”