As a former Australian rugby star, Hayden Smith is not your typical tight end. At 27, he’s not even your typical rookie. In a new country learning the nuances of a new sport, it’s Smith’s abnormal path to the NFL that may separate him from the current class of incumbent rookies.
Separated is one way to describe Smith early in his Jets career. Unlike his peers, who gathered at the Jets’ practice facility in Florham Park, NJ for their rookie camp seminar this weekend, Smith is still learning the basics of a game that, for many, have been a part of their lives since grade school. Even his locker is separated from the team — with all rookies conjuring in the center of the locker room where their collapsible lockers reside — he sits quietly in the corner underneath a locker that reads “Smith #82” emblazoned in green and yellow.
But the way Smith sees it, he needs to be singled-out if he wants to be the next great crossover-sport tight end. “If I’m going to be successful doing this, there’s really no room for error. That’s how I need to look at it and that’s how I’m being coached,” he said.
Offensive Coordinator Tony Sparano has been very hands on with Smith and vocal about his progressions during rookie camp, many times barking out his short comings while also pulling him aside for a little 1-on-1 coaching. Smith’s first impression of his new coach? “Coach Sparano has been great. He’s a hard coach and, obviously, with good reason.”
Sparano, a vocal guy by nature, has to push Smith even more as this is his first time seeing these once-foreign concepts played out on the field. After months of watching film and studying the terminology of the new playbook, Smith is just excited to get out of the classroom.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve just been enjoying the whole process. So it’s great to finally be out on the field and see some of the concepts that I’ve been learning about,” he said.
While he’ll admit the time has been fun, he’ll also be forthright regarding the difficulties of getting up to speed with everyone else. He’s called the whole transition an “up and down process”, where somethings are harder to grasp than others. For example, on Saturday’s 7-on-7 team drills Sparano blew up on Smith who lost two yards on a simple drag route in the right flat. Sparano cited the slow timing of the route and the loss of yards as points of emphasis with a few “dang-its” sprinkled in.
The former rugby/basketball player has the size (6’6″ / 255 lbs.) to be menacing force up the middle and big target in the red zone. In the team’s 11-on-11 drills, Smith wowed personnel and media members alike when he created separation with his body, jumping up over the top of sixth round safety selection Josh Bush for a 25-yard gain over the middle. Another over-the-should grab in traffic shows the type of raw potential Sparano is working with.
Learning a new game and expecting to excel early is nothing new for Smith, who decided to play the sport competitively until 2008. Within weeks of starting he played for the All-American Team before being signed to play competitively.
With Dustin Keller offering more athleticism than blocking and Jeff Cumberland offering just the opposite, Smith has a chance to make a name for himself as a bruising blocker and play-maker. All he needs to do is separate himself from the competition.