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Smith, Jennings might be just right

Posted Jul 27, 2012

D.J. Smith was shocked when he was drafted by the Packers. M.D. Jennings is surprised to be competing for a starting job.

Two players from low-profile college football programs are big names in the Packers’ defensive plans for the 2012 season. Smith is pushing for playing time at inside linebacker. Jennings is doing the same at safety.

“I’m trying to find a way to stand out and give them another reason to look at the film,” said Smith, a sixth-round pick in 2011.

“Coming in as an undrafted guy and having to fight for everything, I would’ve never thought I’d be this close to fighting for a starting job,” said Jennings, but there he was at safety in the Packers’ No. 1 defense on Friday morning. The undrafted free agent from Arkansas State is getting a long and legitimate look at what he can do.

Smith was all-world at Appalachian State, but the world is much smaller tucked away in the mountains in Boone, N.C. The Packers found him and what they saw made them ignore Smith’s height limitations; he’s only 5-11. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers counts Sam Mills among the finest players Capers has ever coached.

“He’s probably the most intelligent football player I’ve ever been around,” Appalachian State Defensive Coordinator Dale Jones said of Smith. “Being a smart football player can get you a long way. I just think if he gets the opportunity, he’ll be somebody that will really shock people.”

Smith is getting the opportunity right now, as Desmond Bishop is being forced to sit out practices due to a calf strain. In Friday morning’s practice, Smith was step for step 30 yards downfield in coverage against one of the Packers’ talented tight ends.

It was a Bishop calf injury on Thanksgiving Day last season that earned Smith his first extended playing time, and Smith responded with seven tackles and a quarterback hit. On one play, Smith knifed through the line and tackled running back Kevin Smith for no gain.

“You want to be the best guy at your position. You’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Smith said. “I’ve been dealing with it since coming out of high school,” he added of his lack of height. “At the end of the day, it’s all about who can play football.”

Jennings was a surprise roster keep in final cuts last summer. When he wasn’t drafted, he considered accepting a job as a coach and teacher at his high school alma mater in Mississippi.

“I leaned toward it for a little while. I decided to pursue my dream,” he said.

Much about Jennings has changed since he left Arkansas State. He’s gained 25 pounds, 10 of those pounds in the last year to prepare to make a bid for playing time in the Packers defense. The 170-pound college safety is now pushing the 200-pound mark.

“In this business, you can never relax because there are always new guys coming in. I just have to compete for a job, put good things on film and let the coaches decide,” Jennings added.

Smith and Jennings are classic examples of the Packers’ draft-and-develop system. Smith was thought to be too short, Jennings too small. A year later, they might be just right.

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