MOBILE, ALA. — Penn State junior offensive tackle Donovan Smith kept staring down an important life choice as if it were a charging defensive end, then reacted decisively in late December with an aggressive move of his own.
Instead of playing it safe and returning to school for his senior year of eligibility, the Owings Mills graduate decided to bet on himself and declare early for the NFL draft. His rationale included having already earned his degree in criminology after just over three years on campus, during which he flashed unfulfilled potential as a preseason Outland Trophy candidate who wasn't named All-Big Ten Conference last season.
By completing his degree requirements, Smith had delivered on his high school promise to the late Joe Paterno and his family that he would become a Penn State graduate.
"I got my degree, and that was one of my goals, and the next goal on my list was to become an NFL football player," Smith told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday at the Senior Bowl all-star game. "I decided to take that leap."
By doing so, Smith created some surprise in the scouting community, considering that he had an admittedly up-and-down career for the Nittany Lions, for which he started 31 games.
However, Smith is banking on this being a good decision. He's intent on silencing any suggestion he's not ready by turning in a consistent week at the Senior Bowl before NFL coaches and scouts. Smith got off to a positive start Tuesday morning during a shirtless weigh-in, during which he looked relatively lean and muscular, considering he's just under 6 feet 6 and weighs 341 pounds. Smith has been projected anywhere from the third round to the fifth round.
"I'm here at the Senior Bowl, and I'm going to show out," Smith said. "Every day out here is an interview for me. I'm a fighter. I like to get after it and mix it up."
Smith displayed good mobility in blocking drills, walling off quick pass rushers with better footwork than he showed at times at Penn State. He even drew comparisons to massive San Diego Chargers starting offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, a dominant blocker from Alabama.
"Very talented kid, very big and has good feet for a big guy, so he reminds me a bit of Fluker," said NFL draft analyst Russ Lande, a former Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams college scout. "He's never going to be great in terms of handling speed rushers off the edge, but he's good enough to get the job done. He's powerful and a good athlete. He's a highly-competitive kid. He's in very good shape.
"I think he could be a tackle or a guard in the NFL. I think he's better suited to play right tackle than left, but he's a good football player. There are a lot of tackles in this draft, but there isn't a clear great one. He's in the very good category."
Smith readily acknowledged that his college career left something to be desired.
In games, Smith would frequently overextend his hands and lean in the wrong direction. Sometimes, he became overzealous in his efforts to go after defensive linemen.
"Part of the up-and-down thing with him is he's so competitive," Lande said. "He'll lean, bend, reach and be overaggressive. He literally tries to finish every block. He can be as good as he wants."
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and Browns general manager, classified Smith as a prospect who could boost his draft stock with a strong week.
"Donovan Smith is a giant offensive tackle who started off very well as a freshman and had some ups and downs," Savage said. "I think there's been good and bad with thim. He's got a chance to right some of those wrongs, so to speak, and put a positive spin on his play this week and maybe build some momentum as he goes into the combine and his Pro Day."
Heading into the Senior Bowl, there are questions about Smith's consistency.
"I guess that's a fair assessment," Smith said. "Consistency is a big thing. It's one thing I want to work on and master as I move on to the NFL."
Moving to Baltimore County from Amityville, N.Y., prior to his sophomore year of high school, Smith helped his high school teams end a 53-game losing streak and became a blue-chip recruit.
At Penn State, Smith dealt with the hardships of sanctions against the program stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Paterno's death and the coaching change from Bill O'Brien to James Franklin.
"I've been through a lot of adversity," Smith said. "I've been pushing through that and maintaining and basically just going forward. It made me a lot stronger person and a better man."
Smith capped his career at Penn State with a 31-30 overtime comeback win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, during which his team gained 453 yards of total offense. It marked the final college game for Smith, a former U.S. Army All-American in high school who chose Penn State over scholarship offers from UCLA, Maryland and North Carolina State.
Smith has bench pressed 400 pounds and squatted over 500 pounds, impressive strength for a position where he'll need all the leverage he can find.
"I bring a lot of power and explosiveness at the point of attack for run blocking and pass protection," Smith said. "I bring a lot to the table."
When he was a senior at Penn State, Ravens offensive guard John Urschel called Smith the most physically talented player he'd ever seen. And Penn State coaches told Smith out of high school that he reminded them of former Nittany Lions first-round offensive tackle Levi Brown.
Now, Smith is hoping to finally live up to those expectations as he's set his ambitions on being drafted as high as possible.
"It's a great opportunity with everything I've been through, everything we've been through, for me to be here," Smith said. "It's just a blessing for me. I'm going to take advantage of this."