James Smith-Williams: Path to the NFL Draft
When you think about the traits that NFL teams covet, what springs to mind? Versatility? Intelligence? Character? For defensive end needy teams in the NFL Draft, one prospect epitomises all these traits and then some. He played safety, linebacker, and defensive end at North Carolina State. He has an internship and promise of employment at IBM under his belt. His work in the community has helped define his character. James Smith-Williams ticks all the boxes.
“Obviously the high character stuff is very important in an NFL locker room. There’s not going to be another guy come in and understand the playbook as well as me. I’m gonna be a guy who’s going to be dependable. That’s my whole thing. I’m dependable, I’m intelligent, and I’m going to get the job done.”
Competitive aspect fuels love of football
A competitive nature is also required to succeed in the NFL and that’s something that James Smith-Williams has carried with him from a young age. Through high school, college, and into the NFL Draft process it has been his reason for playing. Growing up in North Carolina it helped form a love for the game.
“I’ve been playing football since I was, I think, four. I was a big four year old! The cut off age is like five, but they let me join a little bit early. It was my first true love of a sport. I’ve played other sports, but it always came back to football. For me the thing I fell in love with most is the competitive aspect of it.”
As a Carolina Panthers fan, he had two of the games most fierce competitors to inspire him on his football journey.
“I was a receiver at first so I would say Steve Smith was a big guy for me. Then when I moved to the defensive side of the ball, I really liked Julius Peppers.”
The switch from wide receiver to defense happened at Millbrook High School. The move would be the first in several transitions and transformations through his football journey that would help come to define James Smith-Williams on the football field.
“It was essential for me. It was where I first made the move from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side of the ball. I kind of learned the beginning aspects of being a defensive end, outside linebacker type guy. All the fundamentals definitely came from there.”
James Smith-Williams: Senior sack machine at Millbrook High School
Playing high school football in North Carolina for Millbrook helped craft the competitive nature, playing against and alongside quality players, but at the same time nurturing the love for the game in a fun environment.
“Obviously we’re not Texas, California, Florida, where there’s 10,000 seat stadiums to watch high school football games but I think North Carolina football is really good. A lot of great players come from North Carolina. It’s an awesome experience, there’s not a lot of things like it. I think back on the student section at high school, it was just so much fun. High school is just different from college, and I’m not a professional yet but I imagine it’s kinda the same, where it just becomes a little bit more job like and less about just how much fun you can have.”
It may have been less business like at Millbrook, but it was where James Smith-Williams learned to get the job done. In his junior year he contributed 70 tackles including 10 tackles for loss. Then in his senior year, he racked up 146 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, and tied the school record with 19 sacks.
“It was really cool to have that success at Millbrook. That’s a place that I hold very dear to my heart in my development as a football player, but also as a student and as a young man. They’ve set me up for the rest of my life and that trajectory that I got from having those really good seasons at Millbrook.”
Physical transformation begins at NC State
It was really the senior season at Millbrook High School that helped propel James Smith-Williams onto the next stage of his football journey. Although he left as a 3* recruit, there had been little interest prior to his senior year and the recruitment process didn’t take off for him until late.
“It definitely picked up late. I would say most of my offers came in pretty much last second. I was very undersized for a defensive end at 6’4, 195lbs. Obviously if you looked at me five years ago and look at me now, I’m not really recognisable as the same person. I got chance to look at some great schools and build some great bonds with some great coaches. The focus was to be able to find a place that met my needs on and off the field and give me the chance to what I wanted to do on and off the field and NC State gave me the best option to do that.”
That process would trigger a transformation that would become a hot topic at the NFL Combine some years later. Knowing that he wouldn’t physically be able to play defensive end in the ACC at that size, the NC State strength and conditioning team put James Smith-Williams through a program that saw him go from 195lbs to 265lbs during his time there.
“It was definitely something that I focused on. I wanted to gain that weight, I wanted to get bigger. You’ve got to take that daily approach to how you’re eating. I was lucky enough to be blessed with phenomenal strength staff that really know what they’re doing and helped me gain weight in a way that was beneficial to me as a player.”
James Smith-Williams talks technical transition
Whilst he was undergoing a physical transformation, he went through a technical transition as a player, moving from safety, to linebacker, to finally back at home as a defensive end. That transition has given him the key trait of versatility, something that is so important as he heads to the NFL. It’s also given a great perspective and knowledge of the game, with his football intelligence being another tick in the box for NFL teams.
“Safety, you’re in space. You have a long time to make the reads. Obviously, you’re going to see more of the field, so your eyes are very important. At linebacker, you’re getting more into the box so you’re taking on offensive lineman, so your hands and leverage are very important. Obviously, defensive end is very different. You’re still making reads but not at the same level you would at safety or linebacker. I think playing different positions has really given me a different skillset. Safety was a lot of coverage. Linebacker was a lot of quick reads. Taking those skills to the defensive line has definitely helped me out. If you’re a defensive end that can drop into coverage that’s very helpful. You can add a lot more value to a team. That’s the name of the game, how valuable are you?”
Patience pays off with standout season as a starter
Not only has his time at NC State taught him versatility, it’s taught James Smith-Williams patience too. He wouldn’t consistently start at defensive end until 2018, having to wait for his opportunity whilst teammate Bradley Chubb terrorised offenses in the ACC on his way to a first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. It was a standout year, with 36 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks, and a forced fumble.
“2018 was my first year starting. Obviously, I was Bradley Chubb’s backup. He’s a great guy, a great kid, a great ball player. I waited my turn. It was a lot of fun. We were attacking up the field. It was a lot of fun. But I try not to look back at it too much, you gotta keep things pushing, keep it moving.”
He could have declared for the 2019 NFL Draft on the back of that performance, something that crossed his mind. It isn’t a decision that James Smith-Williams regrets at all.
“You’re like I can go and be a pro, I already graduated, I can go make money. Honestly I think coming back with the best decision for me.”
James Smith-Williams earns the number 1
Although injuries would mean 2019 wouldn’t live up to the on-field success of 2018, it started with one of the great honours bestowed by the NC State football program. James Smith-Williams would wear the number 1 jersey in his final year with the Wolfpack.
“The number one is given to the guy who excels off the field in terms of community service, high GPA and then on the field is a guy who you look to make plays when you need them. It was a huge honour that our staff gave me that number. It really meant a lot to me.”
The work in the community is something that helps sum up the high character nature of James Smith-Williams. Being a better man off the field is as important as being a better player on the field. It’s something that he has carried with him since his days at Millbrook High School. There, he set up the Athletic Service Club, his first efforts at community service and support.
“So essentially what it was, we started an after-school program where student athletes from Millbrook High School would go out to the local middle schools and elementary schools and spend a couple of days a week with the kids. We mentored them and get them ready for EOG (end of grade) stuff like that. It was really awesome to start that culture of giving back at Millbrook.”
Using the NFL Draft process to highlight a cause close to his heart
The NFL Draft process has given him the opportunity to continue that work, starting with the visit to Shriners Hospital as part of the East West Shrine Bowl week.
“It was excellent. Obviously, these kids are all involved in some tremendous fights so anything you can do to put a smile on their face, and make their burden a little lighter, you’re obviously very happy to do it.”
During the week of the Shrine Bowl, he wore specially designed cleats to help raise awareness of Set The Expectation, a cause that has been close to his heart. He continued to raise awareness, and combined it with fund-raising, during the week of the NFL Combine. Every rep done during the bench press helped raised funds for the charity.
“It’s a non-profit charity organisation that focuses on domestic violence and sexual assault. Prevention, education, things of that nature. I’m really close with the founder, Brenda Tracy, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough that we’ve been able to help each other out a lot through this process. It’s been a really great partnership. She’s an awesome lady that I think the world of in terms of what she does. I think we’ve been able to raise a little over $1100 for them.”
James Smith-Williams shines at the NFL Combine
Maybe it was the desire to raise funds, or the desire to challenge preconceptions, but the NFL Combine really was a huge success for James Smith-Williams. He set the fastest 40-yard dash time of any defensive lineman. His bench press, vertical jump, and broad jump were all in the top ten at the position. After a college career that has seen him be labelled as injury prone, one element was more important to him than the others.
“That label gets put on you. For me, at the combine, the medical part was very important, so I was very fortunate to go there. Those medicals are knocked out. I always think I could have run a bit faster, jumped a bit higher, but given the circumstances it was a really exciting week and I think I proved what I needed to prove. Hopefully it helps me out in the next two weeks or so!”
With a disrupted NFL Draft process, the NFL Combine represented one of the last opportunities for teams to sit down and talk face to face with prospects. It’s an opportunity that James Smith-Williams is thankful for, and hopes helped him leave a lasting impression on what he offers at the next level.
“I think they went great. I’m a guy who shines in that situation. I can talk X’s and O’s and football type stuff. That was a good environment for me to be in. Honestly those interviews back at the combine are quadrupled now that none of us can have those face to face interviews. I think that means a lot.”
Getting the job done in the NFL
His performance at the NFL Combine has put James Smith-Williams in the spotlight. He’s proven he is athletic enough to compete in the NFL. The medical concerns lingering over him have been addressed with a clean bill of health. He has been able to show the intelligence and character in team interviews and with his actions throughout his football career. From a pure football standpoint, what does he bring to a team on the field?
“Obviously I’m a very intelligent player. Play recognition and play diagnosis are a big part of my game. But also, I’m a guy who plays very violently. Great hand strength, great strike. That’s kind of what I enjoy most about the game is the physical part. Going pad to pad with another human being is very fun. I’m tremendously athletic and a high energy guy.”
With intelligence, high character, high energy, physicality, versatility, and dependability, James Smith-Williams is ready to get the job done.
He sat patiently behind Bradley Chubb to get his chance to prove what he can do in college. Now he waits for the phone to ring for his chance to prove what he can do in the NFL.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Feature Image Credit: Inside Pack Sports
Huge thanks to James Smith-Williams for taking the time to speak to us. Also to Maggie and Rachel at Priority Sports for helping connect us.