N.C. Central defensive back Ryan Smith grew from scrawny freshman to NFL prospect

NCCU CB Ryan Smith at pro day

N.C. Central cornerback Ryan Smith performs in front of representatives from 26 NFL teams.
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N.C. Central cornerback Ryan Smith performs in front of representatives from 26 NFL teams.

Ryan Smith came to the only school that offered him at least a partial football scholarship – N.C. Central. That was in 2011, and he was 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds.

Four years and a position switch later, the Eagles’ cornerback is expected to become the first N.C. Central player to be chosen in the NFL draft since 2007, and only the third since the mid-1980s.

Smith, who has added more than 30 pounds since he arrived as a freshman from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, did positional drills in front of scouts from 26 NFL teams on Wednesday, showing great footwork as he inches closer to the late-April draft.

“When I came in no one believed in me. I was too small,” Smith said Wednesday afternoon. “And I wasn’t even on full scholarship. I had to earn that. For me to say I was going to the NFL when I got here, and for me to actually fulfill my dreams and it to come true like this, it means the world to me.”

At the NFL scouting combine last month in Indianapolis, Smith ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and put up 18 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, both better than the average cornerback at the combine. His 36-inch vertical matched the average cornerback.

How Smith was missed by so many colleges is understandable, considering he only played one year of high school football.

Smith played football and basketball but preferred basketball as a teenager. Before his senior year at Wise High School, he told his stepfather, Damon Richardson, he wanted to focus solely on football.

“He had to shift gears,” Richardson said. “And he played safety, so we had to work on safety and then we got into working on his feet. I’m a stickler for that. You can learn any scheme, but as long as you have the basics it’s what you can come back to.”

After high school football, Smith received a partial scholarship from N.C. Central after Richardson called an old friend, then-defensive coordinator John Morgan. Smith didn’t earn a full scholarship at N.C. Central until after his redshirt season as a freshman.

In December 2013, Jerry Mack was named N.C. Central’s coach. He said he quickly realized Smith should move from safety to cornerback.

“You could just tell from his skillset,” Mack said. “He has the size that everyone is looking for these days. He had the speed with that. The biggest thing that we saw was his flexibility. Here’s a guy that can turn his hips and run with players down the field.

“That was something that was impressive. We thought that fit him and it helped us as well.”

That move obviously paid off for Smith and the Eagles. He broke the school record for career solo tackles with 168, and finished sixth in total tackles with 263. Smith had seven interceptions and 24 pass breakups in his career.

Regularly during his senior season, Smith would be put on an island – one-on-one – against an opponent’s top receiver. All-conference cornerback Mike Jones went down with an injury, and so the Eagles changed their coverage, putting even more pressure on Smith.

Smith excelled and was second-team All-MEAC.

His play earned Smith N.C. Central’s first invitation to the NFL scouting combine since 1989, when former Garinger High star Robert Massey was drafted by New Orleans in the second round at cornerback.

Because of a solid combine and for fear of tweaking his groin, Smith sat on his combine numbers Wednesday. He did only positional drills and knew immediately what he needed to improve: his hands, staying low and not chopping his feet so much.

“A little bit of pad level and coming out of breaks,” Smith said. “They (scouts) say I chop too much. They want me to come out a little quicker. That’s the main thing. Everything else they like.”

Smith has worked out for or had visits with Arizona, Detroit and the New York Jets. He’s set to work out for the Panthers and Patriots on Thursday. Smith also has official visits set up with Oakland, Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

At 5-11 and 187 pounds, Smith is smaller than most NFL cornerbacks. Most teams want him to weigh 190-195, and he was told some teams want him at 205. He said he doesn’t think he can add that much.

But he made it clear he wants to play on the outside in coverage rather than sliding to a slot corner position like most smaller cornerbacks.

“I hope it’s on the outside,” Smith said. “I can cover slots, but I don’t want them to look at me like I’m not big enough to cover on the outside, because I am. I’m going to play where they want me to play.”

Before the combine, Smith was likely a seventh-round pick to undrafted free agent. But after a solid combine performance and another good pro day, he’s probably elevated himself to a mid-round pick. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he’s a marginal Day 2 selection but likely to hear his name called on Day 3, when rounds 4-7 are conducted.

“I pray I get drafted at a higher round than people expect,” Smith said. “My motto is shock the world. Wherever I go, I’m going to be grateful, regardless.”

Coach Mack will also be grateful when Smith is drafted. The Eagles, who shared the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference championship, could always use the exposure of having a player in the NFL.

“Obviously, it would mean a lot for Ryan and his family, but it would mean a lot to our North Carolina Central family, too,” Mack said. “It’d mean a lot to our alumni. It’d make everyone proud.

“And the most impressive thing is, he’s put us on another level. Almost every NFL team is represented here (for Wednesday’s drills). He’s had a chance to run on national television. Hopefully he gets his name called on draft day. That exposure from a recruiting standpoint, it’s going to help us grow as a program.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9