FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith felt like he put together a strong week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January, taking the first step in what would be a four-month interview process.
It was pretty clear Smith did make an impression that week.
The organization that coached Smith ended up selecting him.
Smith, who had to wait a little longer than he expected, was finally pulled off the board when the Jacksonville Jaguars grabbed him with the 159th pick in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft on Saturday. The Jaguars coached the South squad during the Senior Bowl, getting an up-close look at Smith’s potential.
“That week, I wanted to come in with a great mindset,” Smith said Saturday. “The competition level was very high and I just wanted to come in and prove myself. I love Jacksonville’s defense. Even when the draft started on Thursday, I was talking about Jacksonville’s defense and I’m glad they believed in me and picked me up.”
Smith became the second of four Razorbacks selected over the seven-round draft.
Arkansas fullback Kiero Small (Seattle Seahawks) and place kicker Zach Hocker (Washington Redskins) also went back-to-back in the seventh round with the 227th and 228th selections, respectively. Center Travis Swanson was the third-round pick of the Detroit Lions (No. 76 overall) on Friday night.
In addition, offensive tackle David Hurd said in a text message he had agreed to a free-agent deal with the Miami Dolphins shortly after the draft ended. Defensive tackle Robert Thomas said via Twitter he was going to Washington.
Smith — who is fourth on the school’s career sacks list (21 ½) — said before the draft he was hoping to fall between the second and fourth rounds. He had to wait until the fifth round Saturday, but was happy with the result after getting comfortable with the Jacksonville staff during his week at the Senior Bowl.
He also got close to Jacksonville’s first fifth-round pick, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith, during Senior Bowl week. Both impressed the Jaguars in Mobile.
“That’s what we said: later rounds, in the fourth, fifth round, that’s when you feel good about these guys from the way they produced and the energy they had during the week and their ability to learn the system,” Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell said. “We got to see if they were a fit here and we felt like they would be.”
Jacksonville’s plan is to play Smith at defensive end even though he is considered undersized for the position in the NFL. But Caldwell said he does bring flexibility to the defense because of his ability to play outside linebacker as well.
“He’s a very good football player,” Caldwell said. “Very instinctive. He’s short for a defensive end. … But I’ve been around guys like that with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis that didn’t have the actual height. But he’s got 34-plus inch arms to make up for that length. And then his speed and we feel like him being able to get some leverage helps pass rushers sometimes.”
Smith said before the draft he was eager to get back on the field after the long wait.
Smith also promised that whoever selected him was getting a “hell of a player,” even though he acknowledged being an undersized defensive end. Smith, who worked extensively at outside linebacker during Arkansas’ on-campus pro day, said he didn’t line up at the position during Senior Bowl practices.
But he’ll be comfortable playing anywhere for the Jaguars as he tries to cut his teeth in the NFL after a successful career with the Razorbacks.
“I’m always told that getting drafted is the easy part, the hard part is staying in there,” Smith told the Jacksonville media. “I just want to come in and work hard each and every day, get to know my teammates, have my teammates get to know me, things of that nature, but I’m just coming in to work hard, that’s the bottom line. I’m going to work hard and try to get better each and every day.”
He’s not the only former Razorback carrying that mantra into the NFL after being selected in the later rounds Saturday. Small and Hocker were both holding out hope they’d be selected and got their wish when they were pulled off the board.
Hocker was the first place kicker selected when the Redskins grabbed him with their final selection. He’ll compete for the place kicking job with Kai Forbath, who went 18 for 22 on field goals in 2013 and 17 for 18 in 2012.
Washington coach Jay Gruden said Hocker was worth the pick after a productive career with the Razorbacks.
“Kai needs to kick off better,” Gruden told the Washington media after the draft ended Saturday. “That’s a fact. He’s obviously a very good field goal kicker, which is important, and we have a lot of respect for his talent as a kicker. But we also felt like we needed to bring another kicker in here to compete and look at for the kickoff specialist type thing, and compete with Kai. Every other position on the football team has competition, and the kicker should be no different.”
Hocker followed Small, who will get an opportunity to make the roster with the Super Bowl champs. The hard-nosed fullback also reunites with former teammate Alvin Bailey, who made Seattle’s roster as an undrafted free agent last season.
Small’s goal is the same after being a seventh-round pick. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said before the draft Small had generated plenty of late interest from teams in the lead-up to the draft and he became the third fullback taken.
“My cousin said it from the beginning,” said Small, who watched the draft with family in Baltimore. “He said I was going to end up in Seattle. The closer and closer we got to my name being called, everybody was saying Seattle, Seattle. It’s a great feeling for it to come true. …
“I try to play a tough brand of football. The Seahawks play a tough brand of football. Either way, it felt like that’s where I was going to end up.”