RENTON – Before the season, linebacker Malcolm Smith called his third year in the NFL pivotal.
“I was watching the NFL Network, and they said if you haven’t shown you can play a little bit after three years then you ain’t got it and you should probably start looking for another job,” he said.
Then, after Bruce Irvin’s return from a four-game suspension bumped him from the starting lineup, Smith playfully tweeted, “so this is how Woody felt in Toy Story.”
Yet here’s the thing about Woody: He returns to become a favorite of the boy who owns him. Smith will try to pull off a similar comeback, even if he never lost favor within the team.
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With outside linebacker K.J. Wright’s return this season questionable — he’s out at least four to six weeks with a broken foot — the Seahawks will lean heavily on Smith as they try to lock up the NFC West and home-field playoff advantage.
The loss of Wright is a big blow to Seattle’s defense. As linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said last week: “There are sort of K.J. rules: Just put K.J. out there, he’ll make us right. He’ll be in the right position.”
Smith isn’t as skilled as Wright, and it will be hard for him to match Wright’s ability to communicate and put the defense in position. But Smith isn’t an inexperienced replacement. He’s started half of Seattle’s games this season and has played two different positions.
He’s the linebacker equivalent of a utility player, a guy whose value is in his versatility.
“If they need me to go in and play a position right away without too many practice reps, I feel like I can do that,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a starter, but I’m close.”
Said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner: “We consider him a starter. When he comes in, we don’t lose a beat.”
Smith weighs 226 pounds according to Seattle’s roster, and that number has long been an issue for him.
During college at USC, Smith was diagnosed with achalasia, a rare disease that hinders swallowing and makes it hard for him to maintain weight. Smith had surgery to improve the issue, but he still has to eat slowly. He tries to eat around 4,500 calories a day to keep his weight up.
Smith played strongside linebacker in Irvin’s absence and had to be more of a pass rusher. But he’s been much more effective later in the season, when he returned to his natural position at weakside linebacker.
“I get to use my advantage of speed a little bit more,” he said.
The ability to slide in a capable backup like Smith is another example of Seattle’s depth. The Seahawks are playing without two of their top three cornerbacks and have endured an influx of injuries.
Smith has played a big role in maintaining the status quo.
“Whenever we’ve called on him for highlighted playing time, he’s always played well,” coach Pete Carroll said. “I don’t know if he’s exceeded expectations of a seventh-round pick, but we certainly have seen him rise up and be a really crucial member of our football team. When he steps in, it doesn’t affect our thinking in any way. We can do everything we want to do.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org