Kevin Gorman: Sutton Smith ready to finally show Steelers what he can do
Sutton Smith went from being one of the most intriguing storylines of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp to an afterthought when he was sidelined for a long stretch.
Never was that more evident than last week, when Mike Tomlin was asked if the sixth-round pick from Northern Illinois was falling behind by missing so much practice time.
It elicited a one-word answer: “Yes.”
Smith couldn’t help but smile when reminded Monday that Tomlin and Steelers players were ribbing the rookie outside linebacker upon returning to practice by saying, “Sutton who?”
“It’s fun that they tease me a bit, but it’s true,” Smith said. “It’s what, my first day back in 17 days? What I had wasn’t a minor injury. It’s something big. I’m just blessed that I’m back as quick as I am and ready to play ball.”
Smith declined to reveal the nature of his injury, but it was serious enough to keep him from practicing at Saint Vincent. That prevented Smith from playing in the Steelers’ first two preseason games, which would have been beneficial.
“It’s frustrating, but you can’t think about the negativities of being out and being a rookie at the same time because it will eat away at you and put more pressure on you and you’ll end up playing worse,” Smith said.
“I knew the time was ticking. I didn’t really read too much into it. I just knew I had to get back on the field and play fast.”
The 6-foot, 238-pound Smith became one of the most compelling experiments at voluntary organized team activities and mandatory minicamp when the Steelers gave him reps at fullback, opening the possibility of becoming a two-way player.
Smith hadn’t played offense since high school, when he rushed for 2,000-plus yards and scored 32 touchdowns as a senior, but Tomlin found his speed and toughness intriguing.
The switch isn’t unprecedented, as Roosevelt Nix played on the defensive line at Kent State before switching to fullback for the Steelers.
“Sutton’s a great athlete. He’s trying that out and doing good with that,” Nix said. “It’s just how you decide how far you want to go with it. It’s definitely doable. I’m not the only person. I just wanted to play, so I was willing to do whatever it took.”
Nix’s success inspires Smith, who said he’s still “flirting with fullback” for the Steelers and remains open to the idea of playing on both sides of the ball.
“That tells me that it’s possible,” Smith said. “But I’m not going to have someone tell me I can’t do something. That’s not me. That’s not my mentality in this sport. I want to be able to show that I can do anything, like I showed in college.”
At Northern Illinois, Smith was a two-time Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year. The self-described “heat-seeking missile” had 30 sacks and 58 tackles for loss and was a consensus All-American after recording 14 sacks and 29½ tackles for loss as a junior.
As Smith focused on his recovery, undrafted free agent Tuzar Skipper — who was signed after a tryout — took advantage by recording sacks against Tampa Bay and Kansas City. With Ola Adeniyi out after knee surgery, Smith could get increased playing time behind starters Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt and top backup Anthony Chickillo in the final two games of the preseason before rosters are cut from 90 to 53.
“That’s the best thing about it: I have two games,” Smith said. “It would be bad if I only had one game. But I have half the games. I think it’s a blessing that I’ve come back this fast from what I had. It’s going to be fun. I have two games. That’s more than enough film to show what I can do.”
And let everyone know who Sutton Smith is.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .