When it comes to Louisville, much of the attention has gone to the offense and with good reason, but they have had an aggressive defense that has been able to make plays for them. One of their best players on that side of the ball has been their leo backer Marcus Smith, who had a monster season for the Cardinals. He has been used as a standup end, outside linebacker, and defensive end in the Cardinals scheme. They have used him as their featured pass rusher, who can attack from a number of different angles, showing explosiveness and the ability to get to the quarterback, but having the ability to drop into coverage and looking the part for them.
Projecting to the NFL, Smith has a nice combination of skills that could allow him to be a versatile player. On the surface, he looks like a speed rusher and he can certainly do that, but he does a pretty good job using his hands to defeat blocks and get into the backfield. Smith drops into coverage effectively and looks comfortable in coverage, but has range to cover the field against the run. He looks like he can contribute right away as a sub package player but Smith has the talent where he could become a starter early in his career, possibly as a rookie. Smith projects as a top 75 pick with all he can do, but his ability to play immediately as well as his long-term upside make him a good option for teams in search of a leo backer or 3-4 rusher.
Vitals & Build
Smith is listed at 6’3” 252lbs and has a nice build for the position. He has a strong enough build where he does not look out of place as a defensive end. Smith has shown great quickness, agility and explosiveness while having impressive body control. His functional strength is solid but could improve. He shows an impressive motor and just keeps coming. Smith still has potential to get stronger but he is probably not going to want to add a ton of weight if it could potentially alter how fluid he is and his speed. He looks like someone who should really be impressive in workouts if those measurables are accurate.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Smith is inconsistent with his ability to anticipate and get off with the snap. There are times when he is right on and can get an instant advantage against opponents and they are working to make up ground. He also has situations where he is late off of the ball and is working to make up ground with his impressive acceleration and speed. Smith will try to guess the snap count and try to get a jump, which will occasionally have him get caught off sides or trying to get back as the ball is snapped.
His first step can be incredibly effective. There are situations where he comes off of the ball with a strong step that puts him past the offensive lineman he is facing off against. Some of this can be due to the fact that Smith is lined up wide and is attacking wide, which gives him the freedom to fly up the field. There are times when he will get caught taking a short or no step and reacting to what the defender is doing. He needs to get more comfortable when it comes to attacking inside with his first step.
Smith has experience coming from a 3-point stance as well as a 2-point stance. They also have used him in a standup interior position. His explosion and first step seem to be at their best when he has his hand on the ground, but his jackrabbit start can be impressive as well. It all comes down to his consistency.
Smith tends to be a more of a finesse and speed player when it comes to taking on blocks, but he can display strength. The key for Smith is his pad level and where his leverage is when he takes on blocks. He tends to play too high when he is in the middle of the line and working through trash. Smith is more comfortable playing with a better pad level on the outside when he has a feel for the one on one matchup. Ultimately, he seems to bet on his speed and agility because it is easier, which is not uncommon.
At times, Smith shows some pretty heavy hands and can punch and deliver a blow on opponents before then making a move that is more about his quickness and speed. Smith shows a willingness to take blocks on straight up as well as try to run to the side of them and use his arm for protection on the outside.
Smith shows the ability to be an effective run defender but is so focused on the passing game that he can end up taking himself out of plays and opening running lanes with how he plays. When he is playing run, he can set the edge and jam an opponent to take eliminate the options for the ball carrier. Usually, he sets up his teammates to make a play inside, but if the runner wants to go outside, he can slide out there and make the play.
Partly a matter of the scheme they run, but also due in part to how Smith plays, he really likes to play the outside and rush up the field. As a result, he can end up taking himself out of the play, opening a running lane behind him and being put in the position of a run and chase linebacker. He has the speed where he can make plays in that role, but he can work on his ability to read plays, diagnose and attack better. There are times when he ends up taking the easy way out as opponents open up an option for him and he takes it looking for the sack rather than his gap.
Smith does have the ability to slip into the backfield and make plays. Because of his speed and quickness as well as his hands, he can beat opponents to the spot, crash the backfield and track down the ball carrier. Smith shows the ability to be an effective run defender and just needs to do it on a more consistent basis.
Smith really likes to play the role of a speed rusher. He loves to attack up the field, on the outside, look to put the tackle at a disadvantage and force them to adjust to his speed, allowing him to make a second move.
Smith has two ways he will approach the outside rush. He can stay outside, work up the field and use his arm to protect himself from the block in his flank, bend around the edge and flatten out to the quarterback. Smith has shown at times he can really bend well at the ankle and flex around effectively to get into the backfield.
The other way Smith will attack is running to the outside but turning his upper body square to the opponent and using his hands to press an advantage while already having his body turned to the quarterback. And when he is using that speed rush and is able to put the opponent at a disadvantage, he is not afraid to plant and cut back, trying to cut underneath.
Smith should embrace his power more and use a bull rush, but he does display some decent strength in his hands at times, able to create space for his speed to work. He is not afraid to rush inside, using his hands to attack and brace himself for contact, keeping active hands with the ability to shed at times.
When Smith is able to get into the backfield, he makes the most of opportunities. He is extremely quick, and shows good control so he can adjust to what the quarterback is doing and make the tackle.
Smith has been used to drop into coverage and while he is mostly used in zone, he has shown some man skills as well. He does not look like a fish out of water, is able to move and slide effectively, and gets to his spot quickly. Smith is aggressive and will use his hands to hit and redirect receiving threats. He is not afraid to go after the football and shows the ability to deflect passes when caught in space.
Smith needs more time and reps to get more experience, but he definitely shows the ability to contribute in coverage as a changeup or as a consistent aspect of his game.
Smith has been able to contribute as a special teams player for the Cardinals. His explosiveness and leaping ability as well as natural timing allowed him to block a kick. In general, his athleticism, build and strength make him a great fit on coverage teams as well.
The best fit for Smith appears to be a leo backer. He has done it and played it really well at Louisville. Nevertheless, Smith has done so many different things and done them well where he could be used as a 3-4 outside linebacker as well. While he needs to get better when it comes to being a consistent run defender, he has the ability to get after the quarterback and drop into coverage, so at worst, he seems like a sub package player initially, but the potential is there for him to start early in his career.
Smith’s game might be similar to that of Jerry Hughes of the Buffalo Bills. Hughes was initially drafted in the first round as an electric edge rusher by the Indianapolis Colts out of TCU, but it never clicked there in spite of the fact that he was being eased in to the process behind Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Hughes has found himself in Buffalo and has become more of the player he looked like he could be coming out of college. Smith might be able to make that transition more quickly than Hughes did.
Marcus Smith is difficult to ignore. He has tremendous athletic ability and this year, he really put it all together and had a huge year. Smith was able to rack up sacks, go up and tip passes and his motor just never seems to stop running. He needs to become a better, more consistent run defender and curb some of his love of attacking up the field, but he brings a lot of ability to an NFL team immediately. Smith projects as a top 75 pick for teams that need a leo backer and can rush the passer as well as be versatile, able to drop into coverage.
Some of the film used for this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com