Le Kevin Smith** contemplated entering the NFL draft last season after the Nebraska Cornhuskers suffered their first losing season in 44 years. The big nose tackle weighed his options but decided to return to Lincoln for his senior season. During his final year at Nebraska, Smith became a team leader and more consistent player. Now, one year later, he has a chance to contribute on a team that's won three Super Bowls in the last five years.
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."
His decision to return for his senior season turned out to be a wise one. Smith recorded 43 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. He 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."
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 from time-to-time.
"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."
The team is in need of some more big run-stuffers and at 316 pounds, Smith has the size to take on blockers and force running backs to break their runs to the outside, where other Patriots defenders should be waiting with open arms. The former Cornhuskers isn't a lock to make the final roster but his versatility and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect. If he can continue to build on his strong senior season, Smith should be able to add some much needed depth along the interior of the Patriots defensive line.