By now, it’s pretty clear
In case you missed it, last season’s No. 7 overall pick, recorded 14.0 sacks, just a half-sack from tying the league’s single-season rookie record set by Jevon Kearse in 1999.
Known league-wide as “The Freak,” Kearse forged a strong, 11-year career that saw him record 74.0 sacks. However, Kearse only recorded two other double-digit sack seasons following his breakout rookie season while remaining as a valued contributor for his defenses.
Smith, on the other hand, wants to best his impressive rookie numbers while making the transition from a third-down pass-rush specialist to becoming a three-down outside linebacker.
“I don’t have a number set but I want to improve on what I did last year,” said the 6-foot-4, 258-pound linebacker who broke San Francisco’s rookie sack record.
Smith understands he won’t sneak up on any unsuspecting tackles this coming season. He’s already visualizing extra blockers coming his way. By the latter stages of his rookie campaign, Smith said tight ends and running backs were assigned to chip him at the line on his third-down rushes.
When the 49ers begin the 2012 preseason this Friday night against the Minnesota Vikings, Smith expects additional attention to come as well when he tries to disrupt the visiting offense led by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.
“I kind of expect them to pay more attention,” said Smith, who recorded five multi-sack games in 2011. “I’m not flying under the radar – they’ve seen what happened last year. So, whether that causes double-teams, chips, or whatever, I’m preparing for it.”
Smith isn’t alone in making the adjustment. Coaches and teammates have been at the forefront of helping him make the transition to the starting defense.
“I’m learning every day,” said Smith, who noted that covering receivers is the biggest challenge to him at this point of camp. “I can’t really pinpoint one person, everybody out there has helped me out.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been encouraged by Smith’s development at outside linebacker and said it’s possible that the second-year player stays on the field longer than his first-team defensive counterparts this Friday night.
Furthermore, Fangio is curious to see how his entire teams will fare in the preseason debut.
“I’m anxious to just see everybody play, both as an individual, particularly the young guys, and as a unit,” Fangio said. “Just wanting to see good playing, guys have been coached out there, they’ve learned what we’ve put in and they can execute it. So, really, evaluate the individuals and the unit as a whole.”
Standout performances in the preseason can make a big difference in backups making a push to make the 53-man roster. While Smith didn’t terrorize the league in the preseason per say, second-year defensive linemen
Both linemen are prime examples of preseason dominance translating to job security with the 49ers.
“They did make the team based on their work in camp and in the games,” Fangio said. “And we’re looking for the next undrafted free agent, or the next sixth or seventh round pick to make this team, always.”
Even though Dobbs has been practicing with the offense at times as a tight end, Fangio sill believes the 6-foot-2, 282-pound defender can still contribute on his side of the ball.
“He is getting better as a tight end, and I think he’s a viable option for us as a tight end,” said Fangio when asked if Dobbs could potentially be moved to the offense full-time. “But no, he’s still primarily a defensive player and he figures into our plans on defense.”
Smith, on the other hand, figures to exclusively play for the defense. And as he heads into the preseason the second time around, the agile pass rusher feels a better sense of what’s to come.
“I got a season under my belt. I’ve learned a lot, a lot is different than it was last year,” he said. “Going into this game, I’m more confident and the butterflies aren’t there as much.”