The Patriots selected Nebraska defensive tackle Le Kevin Smith in the sixth round of the draft but they almost never had the opportunity to do so. This time last year - after the Cornhuskers suffered their first losing season in over four decades - Smith considered entering the NFL draft.
After mulling over his options, he decided to return to Nebraska for his senior season and Smith doesn't regret his decision one bit.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "I'm so happy that I came back for my senior year. We had some real good character guys at Nebraska and I think coming back made me a better person. I'm more prepared for the NFL now than I would have been last year."
Smith lined up at three different positions along the defensive line for Nebraska. He played right defensive tackle as a sophomore, nose guard as a junior and weak-side tackle as a senior. Smith's versatility is one of the things the Patriots like about him.
"He has a little position flexibility," Bill Belichick said after the Patriots selected Smith with the 206th overall pick. "He has a little bit of height to him so he could possibly play some end. I think we'll start him off a little more at nose tackle. Let's see how it goes. I wouldn't rule out end for him but he's probably more of a nose."
Smith's position coach at Nebraska, John Blake, who was the defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys from 1993 to 1995, agrees with Belichick regarding Smith's ability to play both end and tackle.
"He played all over for us here at Nebraska," Blake said. "He played over the nose most of the time but he also has the speed and quickness to move over to end. He's a good athlete who is very smart. He really knows the game of football."
Smith's decision to return for his senior season turned out to be a wise one. He recorded 43 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. Smith ended his career at Nebraska with 36 tackles behind the line of scrimmage - the second most in school history for a defensive tackle.
"He was very consistent as a senior," Blake said. "That's where he really improved, with his consistency from week-to-week. I thought he really turned the corner last year and now he wants to succeed. They won't have any trouble motivating him. This kid has a tremendous heart and is very coachable. He's always trying to learn more and pick up things that will make him a better football player."
One play during Smith's senior season at Nebraska changed him forever. The Cornhuskers led Texas Tech 31-27 with 1:13 left in the game and the Red Raiders driving. Smith intercepted a tipped pass but instead of falling to the ground, he tried to run with the ball. Smith had the ball knocked loose from behind and Texas Tech recovered the fumble to regain possession. The Red Raiders would score in the final seconds to win 34-31. With Texas Tech out of time outs, all Smith had to do was fall on the ground to secure a Cornhuskers victory.
The mistake was a difficult pill for the big defensive tackle to swallow.
"I was really hard on myself after that game but it was something that I needed," Smith said. "I'm a leader and leaders shouldn't make mistakes like that. You should always be aware of what to do in every situation. I have no excuses about it (running with the ball) being a reaction. I hold myself to a higher standard than that."
Blake supported Smith after the game and told him the character of a person is brought out in these kinds of situations.
"I told him, this is when you become a leader," Blake said. "You can either hide your head in the sand or stand up and show other players how to handle a tough situation and that's exactly what he did. He showed the kind of person he is by stepping up as a leader. He didn't let that one play get him down. He put it behind him and played well for the rest of the year, helping us finish the season on a high note."
Smith will be given every opportunity to backup Vince Wilfork at nose tackle. Mike Wright - an undrafted free agent in 2005 - and Dan Klecko were behind Wilfork on the depth chart last season but both players are a little undersized to play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. If Smith has a good training camp, there's a good possibility he will get on the field as a rookie to give Wilfork a breather every now and then.
"I talked to Le Kevin after he was drafted and told him that he was going to a good system with a great coaching staff," Blake said. "He can play nose or end in the Patriots 3-4 and play tackle when they switch over to the 4-3. I have the utmost respect for Coach Belichick and his staff and I know they'll do a good job of getting the most out of Le Kevin."
Smith's chances to make the final roster improved recently with the arrest of newly acquired Johnathan Sullivan. The former Saint was arrested in Georgia and charged with possession of marijuana, a seat belt violation, running two stop signs and playing loud music. Sullivan was hoping for a fresh start in New England but these recent developments obviously don't bode well for him. His mistake could be Smith's gain. If Sullivan is released, Smith would have a good chance of making the team as the backup nose tackle with a good showing at training camp.