It is what they called a “tough’’ drill, featuring two defensive linemen working on stunts. The tackle makes a move to the outside and the defensive end loops back inside.
Elerson Smith was the defensive end on this particular preseason day in 2018, a tall, skinny project trying to figure it out at Northern Iowa. Smith took his rep, looped back inside, as he was instructed to do. Waiting for him were two offensive linemen. Here is where the “tough’’ aspect of the drill comes in.
So, what did Elerson Smith do?
He stopped. Dead in his tracks.
“It was like, ‘Oh jeez, it’s gonna take a while,’ ’’ Bryce Paup told The Post. “He was like a deer in the headlights. What do I do with that?’’
If you are a former NFL stud pass rusher, you take on the challenge and try to find the “on’’ button to get the skinny youngster to, well, stop stopping when he confronts impediments in his way.
Three years later, Smith was on the Giants practice field Saturday for the second day of a three-day rookie minicamp indoctrination. As a fourth-round draft pick, Smith is the latest in the line of developmental Giants rookies hoping to stick and flourish as a pass-rusher.
If he does, Paup will share in the achievement.
“He basically taught me everything I know about playing defense,’’ Smith said.
It is now up to the Giants to teach Smith about playing defense in the NFL. He already stands out above the pack, as far as stature. The Giants’ roster has him at 6-foot-7 — he was listed as 6-foot-6 in college — and weighing just 245 pounds. Smith after he was drafted said he was up to 260. He is long and lean, with plenty of room to fill out. He has the look of a tight end, which is different to the aura his physique gave off coming out of high school in Minneapolis.
“I looked like a basketball player — a skinny basketball player at that,’’ he said.
Turning that lanky body into something resembling an NFL defender took time, effort and lots and lots of caloric intake. Smith recalls chowing down on copious amounts of Hamburger Helper in order to hit his prescribed mark at college weigh-ins. There was Papa John’s pizza gorging. Slowly, Smith’s 190-pound frame bulked up.
If Smith was on any sort of pathway headed toward the NFL it was filled with speed bumps. He redshirted in 2016 and did not get into a single game in 2017, hardly a promising start to his career. Fate intervened in 2018, when Paup returned to the school as the defensive line coach after spending the 2017 season at Minnesota.
Paup was exactly what Smith needed to take a quantum step forward. A former star linebacker at Northern Iowa, Paup was a 1990 sixth-round draft pick of the Packers and worked his way up the defensive depth chart. As a budding pass rusher, he had 7.5 sacks in 1991 and 11 sacks in 1993. By 1995, Paup was a hot commodity in free agency and the Bills signed him to a three-year deal worth $7.6 million. He rewarded the Bills for their investment with an eruption, amassing an NFL-high 17.5 sacks in his first year with Buffalo, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Paup ended up with 75 career sacks and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in his 11-year stay in the NFL.
“Obviously he has all the experience in the world, playing in the NFL as long as he did,’’ Smith said on The Post’s “Blue Rush” podcast. “He just slowly educated me on the art of pass rush and gave me his little tips and tricks over the years. He was an awesome coach and I have to credit him, a lot for where I’m at.’’
Smith was up to around 220 pounds when Paup started to see signs. “He’s always been fast and quick and athletic,’’ Paup said. “It was just a matter of teaching him technique because he was so raw.
“It was fairly soon, as soon as I saw him come off the ball the first couple of times I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is at a different level.’ ’’
The level was raised in 2019, when Smith became a legitimate NFL prospect after amassing 14 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.
Northern Iowa postponed its fall season and Smith decided not to play in the spring. Paup would have liked one more go-round with Smith, to work on refining his pass rush moves to make him less reliant on speed off the edge.
“The thing I was hoping for if he came back is we could develop the ability to beat someone in a phone booth,’’ Paup said. “He’s got to get a little more violent with his hands.’’
When it comes time to take on two offensive linemen, at least Smith will not come to a halt anymore.
“No,’’ Paup said. “He knows what to do now.’’