This summer, SkullKing Sports will be taking a closer look at recently drafted players. In this edition we had a chance to chat with new Washington Redskins’ defensive end James Smith-Williams. He was kind enough to share his perspective, future outlook, and most importantly his story with us.
Drafted During Quarantine
James is a Raleigh kid through and through. After playing his high school football at local Millbrook High it was an easy choice to transition to NC State. Staying local is important to him, especially during this tumultuous period of COVID-19 related quarantine.
On the day of his selection James was fielding calls left and right from various teams in the familiar setting of his family home. “At that time it had gotten later. Around Round 6 I was getting preferred free agent deals from teams out of picks, just trying to cover their bases,” James told SkullKing Sports.
Among those calls was newly hired Redskins’ head coach Ron Rivera. However, his call wasn’t answered initially. “I was actually on the phone with a team talking through some stuff when Coach Rivera called me. I actually missed his call twice.” The traffic on James’ cell phone was congested to say the least. “So off to a little bit of rough start,” James said with a laugh. “But he was understanding, he’s like, ‘Are you ready to be a Redskin? I’m going to draft you right here with this pick.’ I’m obviously very appreciative of that but it’s a funny start.”
What followed is an awkward, unconventional rookie’s introduction to NFL life. While adhering to social-distancing protocols, teams have to implement their protocols in different ways. New players entering the NFL find themselves in a precarious position. Without the benefit of physically attending meetings, they have to pick up the material and apply it as if they are with their coaches at the team’s facility.
“You try to get in a routine with the meetings and stuff that are more so in the afternoons, late afternoons,” said James. “I finally have some more scheduled things so that’s about 5 hours of my day right there.” While he is still early in the process, Smith-Williams is acclimating to the itinerary. “Now that I have a playbook I can go through that. You’re trying to mimic what your schedule would be in person.”
Smith-Williams is one of many draft picks who find themselves in an interesting time in NFL history. Caught between a pandemic and realizing their professional dreams. Accountability and using one’s time wisely seems to be a focal point for James. Between studying a playbook and attending virtual meetings for hours at a time, he still makes time to stay in shape and improve outside of the traditional training camp. “I lift in the evenings after my meetings. Outside of that its just finding ways to take care of your body.”
College Years: Excelling on and Off the Field
James’ time at NC State is most commonly highlighted by his on-field production in 2018, his Junior year. The impressive output of 37 tackles, 9.5 of which were for loss, and 6 sacks was one of the best individual seasons seen in the ACC that year. Smith-Williams was modest when reflecting on his breakout year with the Wolfpack. He started with acknowledging former teammate and Denver Bronco Bradley Chubb. “That was my first year starting. Prior to that I was Bradley Chubb’s backup. I learned a lot from him, he’s a great guy.”
In his five years at NC State, James spent most of it patiently waiting for his opportunity and making the most of his time on the field. Bottom line: James Smith-Williams is an opportunist in the greatest sense. This applies not only to his ventures on the field, but off it as well.
As an academic All-ACC performer, James dedicated what little time football could afford him to various business concentrations. This all culminated in graduating from NC State with a focus in supply chain management. If that wasn’t enough, he also got the attention of tech giant IBM by securing an employment opportunity when he decides to end his professional football career. Now that is what we call job security.
“The deal with IBM is whenever my football career ends, which hopefully is no time soon, that’s a place I can go and work in that procurement department here in the RTP (Research Triangle Park).” His work with IBM began in the first of what became a two-summer internship program where he worked on everything from robotics process automation to implementing real-time marketing tools. “That second year I did a lot of stuff in marketing…had a chance to do some cool things in Photoshop and make commercials they actually used at the time.”
When speaking on his time with IBM, James exuded as much energy and enthusiasm to the subject as he did discussing the game he loves. He emphasized that he hopes to play football for many years before he takes IBM up on the offer.
Perspective on Injuries
Lower-body injuries were an unfortunate theme for James during his time at NC State. Only able to start 7 games in 2019 and faced with a change in defensive scheme to a zonal 3-3-5, he was unable to replicate 2018 successes. “I had a bit of freak injury to start off my redshirt senior year,” said Smith-Williams. “The nature of it wasn’t serious it was just a nagging deal.” The degree of the injury, while not severe, hindered James’ ability to establish an on field rhythm similar to 2018. “I knew of the high expectations coming in and I was very excited for it,” James said about his redshirt senior year. “Some things are out of your control and you just do what you can with these situations,” he added.
For this reason alone Smith-Williams fell to Round 7. After a brilliant display in 2018, teams simply wanted more sample size. When asked about this perceived concern he regarded it as hyperbolic. “ I hear of the injury narrative and for me I think it is a little overblown. I had one surgery. I’ve only had one surgery in my college career and nothing else.” James has no interest in lamenting on the past. Instead, he is focused on the future, and maintaining his body to prevent future injuries as best he can. “We definitely focus a lot on ankle flexibility, hip mobility, things you need in order to be a solid edge rusher,” he replied when asked what he and athletic trainers at NC State have worked on.
I gave James a chance to speak on those teams who passed on a more than capable edge rusher if only for the health concern. As he had throughout the interview, he approached the subject with incredible decorum. “At the end of the day, I’m happy where I am. I have nothing negative to say to anybody for passing on me. I’m just ready to get to work for the Redskins and focus on what I can do for them.”
Getting Started in Washington
When asked what he feels he can bring to Washington Day 1, Smith-Williams did not hesitate; “The intangibles, football IQ are a big part of my game.” Watching his film you can see the ability to decipher how the play will progress, breakdown, and his reaction to this is incredibly instinctual. He acknowledged the need to improve on his technical ability at a professional level. “I think for me I’m a bit raw and underdeveloped with the defensive switch in college. I’m really excited to get with the coaching staff, bring my physical tools and let them polish me up. I’m a very physical player…I like that contact, I welcome it.”
Soon he will be alongside the likes of All-Pro Ryan Kerrigan, whom Smith-Williams looks forward to working with most. “Ryan Kerrigan would be the guy I’d like to learn from. I’m looking forward to picking his brain.” James is in luck when it comes to learning from veterans on the defensive side of the ball. Under their tutelage, he can expedite his learning curve in the NFL.
The Redskins look to be building on a framework of young talent, something that James embraces. “I’m excited. I know some of the guys already there. Bryce Love is someone I played against in high school. Kelvin Harmon and I played together at NC State. Obviously the defensive line is full of nothing but young talent.” This roster is one that is built upon some of the tenets James values most: hard work and accountability. “It’s exciting, very exciting to go to a place where everyone is working hard every day, they establish themselves, and prove themselves. A lot of energy will be on that team.”