This hasn’t exactly been the preseason Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker Andre Smith hoped for.
First, he injured his hamstring in the team’s preseason opener, costing him that game as well as the next two. But on top of just missing time?
Missing time to gel with fellow rookie Jermaine Carter Jr.
“Coming into OTA’s, we were out there together for most of the time, so I kinda got used to playing out there with him,” Carter said. “I told him, ‘Man, you getting hurt, it kinda messed it up for us,’ (laughs) but hopefully we can be out there together in the future.”
That meant Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Steelers, which Pittsburgh eventually won 39-24, was not only Smith’s first real chance to play with Carter, but his first real chance to play period.
“Oh man, it was so much fun,” Smith said. “Out there just making tackles .... pushing people around. To be able to go out there and play ball again, I’m just grateful for that.”
Neither team’s regular starters played on Thursday, which meant Smith, a former UNC star, saw substantial minutes. And while he finished the game with three tackles, including two in the the red zone, there was one play in particular that should stand out on the film.
With a minute left before halftime and Pittsburgh gunning for a two-point conversion, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (who played high school ball in Rock Hill) emptied the backfield around him. Smith, in at middle linebacker at the time, switched the call to match himself up with the No. 3 receiver.
“But I mean,” Smith said, “I knew when it was empty that he was going to scramble it.”
When Rudolph did make a dash for the end zone, Smith pulled out of his coverage and went for the tackle.
“I saw him run, I came up to tackle him — I really wanted to hit him really bad, I was pretty upset — so I did that,” Smith said.
“I got up, and everybody’s just rushing me.”
A skirmish broke out on the field, as Rudolph was eventually called for taunting and assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct on the play. Smith stood up out of the end zone — “I mean, I had to defend myself,” he said — and went after Rudolph. There was pushing and shoving, and then the referees broke up the tiff.
But for Smith, trying to make Carolina’s roster as a final linebacker, his play overall more than one play was the focus.
And his mental state. Remember, these were his first real NFL snaps, even if they came in a meaningless preseason game.
“You’ve gotta keep it calm, act like you’ve been there before,” Smith said. “Not make the moment too big.”
The question now is whether or not one game of film is enough for coach Ron Rivera to keep Smith on the roster.
“I thought he had some good things,” Rivera said. “A couple of things happened that he’s got to get better at, but unfortunately, he only had this one real game to show us what he can do.”
Given Thomas Davis’ suspension for the first four weeks of the season, there may be an additional linebacker spot for that time frame. Smith’s status as a seventh-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft may not make him seem like a priority, but the team liked his potential earlier in OTA’s and training camp before he was injured.
NFL teams must cut their rosters from 90 to 53 over the weekend, so the Pittsburgh game is the last live action coaches will see of him.
So, how does Smith feel about his chances?
“I don’t know,” he said frankly. “I mean, obviously it’s a cutthroat league. People are released every day — it just happens. That’s the way of the business, so I knew that when I signed up.
“Unfortunately I got hurt. The practice before the first game, I was doing pretty good, and then tonight was OK. ... We’ll see, but I don’t know.”