IT WAS a simple misunderstanding, in Andre Smith's mind. Admittedly out of shape and overweight after his junior season, the All-America left tackle from Alabama and 2008 Outland Trophy winner had decided he wouldn't do drills with other draft prospects at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, instead banking on the Crimson Tide's pro day 2 ½ weeks later to impress scouts. He told as much to the media and to teams with which he interviewed on the Friday of the combine, and the next morning boarded a plane to Atlanta.
Once in Georgia, Smith, 22, headed to Ropeman's Fitness, the gym where he works out under renowned trainer Ty (Ropeman) Felder. As the 6'4", 325-pound Smith prepared for his final set of sit-ups, a gym employee asked him about being AWOL—the term that combine organizers used back in Indy when announcing his absence from Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Smith hadn't realized he was expected to remain at the combine until his fellow offensive linemen were done with their workouts.
His departure immediately provoked questions about his judgment and maturity, especially in light of his suspension from the 2009 Sugar Bowl, reportedly for issues related to improper contact with an agent, and his decision not to work out in Indy. "My reaction was, 'Wow,'" Smith says. "Then it was, 'Hmmm.' I was a little surprised."
Over the next few weeks Smith trained seven days a week, including three times daily from Monday through Saturday. He split his time among Felder for conditioning, 13-year NFL offensive lineman Tony Jones for position drills and Olympic relay champion Chryste Gaines for speed work.
On March 11, pro day for 10 Alabama draft prospects, Smith pulled up to a side entrance at the football complex in Tuscaloosa in a black Cadillac Escalade ESV. He emerged wearing a sweat suit and a ready-to-go expression. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.
Inside the facility, more than 50 NFL coaches, scouts and execs looked on as Smith ran through a battery of drills. While he performed well in position and agility tests, he did only 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, broad-jumped 7'10" and had a vertical jump of 25 inches. His 40-yard-dash time was around 5.3. None of those numbers would have placed him among the top offensive tackles at the combine. Worse, though, he removed his shirt at his weigh-in and before running the 40. While that might not have been an issue for a sleek wideout, the look did not flatter Smith. "He never should have done that," says one scout. "The guy has an ugly body. There's no other way to say it."
That evening Smith described his workout as "outstanding." No one else would go that far. If the goal had been to change the tone of the conversation about his draft status, to repair the damage done by his walkout at the combine, Smith did not succeed, certainly not to the extent he'd wished. Now, as NFL decision-makers prepare for the April 25--26 draft, they must reconcile Smith's three years as a starter at a top college program, the last as reputedly the best lineman in the country, with what's transpired since then. Which images will sway them more: the game tapes of Smith dominating SEC opposition, or the footage of him running the 40 with his shirt off?
SMITH'S COLLEGIATE success is best reflected in his sack totals: Over three seasons he allowed only seven. And it's not as if he played against inferior competition. The SEC had five defensive ends drafted in the first two rounds in 2007 and '08: Derrick Harvey, Quentin Groves, Jamaal Anderson, Jarvis Moss and Turk McBride. In an October matchup against Tennessee's defense—anchored by end Robert Ayers, who could be a high-round pick in this year's draft—Alabama put up 366 yards of offense, including 178 rushing, in a 29--9 victory. Ayers did get a hit on Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson, but Smith says he pulled up on the play because he thought Ayers had jumped the snap. When no offside flag was thrown, he barked at Ayers and told him what was to come. Says Smith, "He had a target on him for the remainder of the game."
Said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban of Smith after that performance, "It is unusual to see a guy that size who has that balance and body control. You never see him falling down, never see him off balance, and he's got a lot of power. You might see a powerful guy, but he's clumsy. And then you have all the guys who have great feet but no power. You don't get that rare combination of a guy who has all those things."
Several general managers scoffed at speculation that Smith could fall past the middle of the first round or out of it altogether. With Jason Smith of Baylor and Virginia's Eugene Monroe projected to be drafted in the top five, teams next in line that are looking for a tackle—including the Bengals (picking sixth), 49ers (10th) and Bills (11th)—will be plenty tempted by Alabama's Smith. "All I can say is that someone will get a steal if he does fall," says one coach whose team selects in the bottom half of the top 10. "I hope he's there when we're on the clock, because I know we'd take him."