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Smith signs and brings a strong work ethic with him

"He was one of those guys that only comes along once in a coach's career, I guess," said Le Kevin Smith's high school coach. "I never had one like him before, and I haven't had one since.

The New England Patriots drafted defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith in the sixth round (206th overall) of the 2006 NFL draft. Smith signed on his 24th birthday, July 21, making him the second rookie to get a birthday-deal from the Pats in two days. Ryan O'Callaghan signed on the 20th.

Smith is strong at the point of attack and was quick enough to record 36 tackles for losses at Nebraska – the second most for a defensive lineman in the history of the Huskers defense. His 11 and 13 tackle for loss seasons in 2004 and 2005, respectively, were the most for a Husker lineman since 1999.

At 6-1, 308 pounds, Smith is big enough to play nose tackle in the Patriots 3-4 defense and versatile enough to move over to end if needed. He played right defensive tackle as a sophomore, nose tackle as a junior and weak-side tackle as a senior. He did just as well at the nose tackle position as he did as a weak-side tackle, logging 43 tackles in both his junior and senior years. He's been compared to Orpheus Roye of the Cleveland Browns, and Smith's versatility is one of the things the Patriots liked about him.

"He has a little position flexibility," Bill Belichick said after the Patriots selected him. "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."

John Blake, Smith's position coach at Nebraska and former Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach agrees with Belichick about Smith's versatility. "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."

Rodney Collins, Smith's high school coach in Macon, Georgia, also thinks very highly of him. "I remember when he first came to my office – it was the summer between his eighth and ninth grade years – I opened my door and the guy was just about blocking out the sun," reflected Collins. "His athletic ability was pretty recognizable – he was 260 pounds as a ninth-grader. From the beginning his coordination and his skills, lateral movement, footwork. He was way ahead of the game. After that, his progression was a constant improvement in skills. His attitude was great from day one. He's going to keep fighting. He's taken advantage of every situation that's come his way."

Collins was just tickled when he heard that Le Kevin was with the Patriots and praised Smith's work ethic, saying "Some kids are blessed with [talent] and take it for granted. He was never like that. His conditioning was a sense of pride with him. He was a leader in the weight room as well as on the football field. Everyone looked up to him here, and he was nice to everyone. The kind of guy that everyone wants to be around. Just a big ol' teddy bear."

The "big ol' teddy bear" went under the knife for ACL surgery shortly after arriving at Nebraska in 2001. Unable to play, he redshirted that year and underwent a second ACL repair on his other knee in the offseason. From that point on Smith has had few injuries, starting in every game but one during his last three years as a Husker.

Last season, Smith had a career high seven quarterback hurries and six sacks -- two of which were against fellow rookie teammate Willie Andrew's old team, Baylor. He was the anchor for the Huskers defense, which led the nation with 50 quarterback sacks and 124 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

"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."

"He's going to get better and better and better," predicted Collins. "I don't think anybody will question his effort on Sunday afternoons. His intelligence for the game of football is excellent, but I would encourage everyone to watch his effort."

Everyone will be watching his effort starting on July 28th. And if it's what coach Collins remembers it being when they met nine years ago, it could be enough to win him the backup spot at nose tackle behind Vince Wilfork.

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