Smith's switch started during Louisville's preseason camp in 2010, when Strong persuaded Smith to give up his preferred position. There were two seniors in front of Smith on the depth chart. Smith didn't get many chances at quarterback in practice. And when he threw, he didn't help his case.
"I was throwing some balls in the dirt," Smith said Friday.
Strong approached Smith about converting to defense after a morning practice. Smith said he would do whatever it took to play. By the afternoon session, Smith was a strong-side linebacker.
"The rest is history," Smith said.
It was also part of Strong's plan. The coach was willing to try to Smith at quarterback, but he knew Smith's future was on defense. The raw attributes that attracted the Eagles to Smith were present - a rare combination of size and speed, the long arms, and the required explosiveness.
"That's why I brought him in," Strong said. "I knew we had a really good athlete."
Smith had not played defense since Pop Warner ball, but he was willing to switch. He became realistic about his quarterback skills. It also proved fortuitous when eventual first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater arrived the next season to quarterback the Cardinals.
"I didn't like how I was playing quarterback at the time," Smith said. "I didn't like how nothing that I was doing was going right. Maybe it was time for me to do a change-up anyway."
Smith had the body for defense, and he continued building that physique. He walked into Louisville at 217 pounds. He graduated on Saturday at 255.
But Smith did not originally possess the mentality for defense. That needed to be honed. Kentucky's Randall Cobb blew past Smith early on for a 51-yard score.
"It took me maybe a year and a half to get it, because I still had the quarterback [sensibility]," Smith said. "Once I got that killer instinct, that's when I started playing really well."
He developed that instinct during offseason training sessions. The regimen included mat drills in which players wrestled. Smith needed to learn how to "be very violent" before he could be successful, he said.
"He's a guy who's willing to work," Strong said. "He's not a guy that you're going have to force to do anything. He's going to show up and be ready to go when it's time to go."
He was a reserve as a freshman, a part-time starter as a sophomore, and a full-time starter with four sacks as a junior. One of those sacks came against third-ranked Florida in a Sugar Bowl upset. He also made a critical sack on a two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter of that game to preserve Louisville's 10-point lead.
Strong said he spoke to Smith about the NFL after that season, but Smith wasn't ready to consider his professional prospects. He was looking forward to a distraction-free senior year and he built his stock throughout the autumn. Smith finished second in major college football with 141/2 sacks. One came on Oct. 5 at Temple. Three came the next week against Rutgers. He ended the season with two sacks against Miami.
"Some guys just get along with athleticism, but he has been coached, he has technique, he has some pass-rush moves," said Temple coach Matt Rhule, who voted for Smith as the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year. "I think the big thing is he's a physical force. He's got long arms, he's got length that you need, he has a great first step, he has power. So he has skill that translates to the next level, plus he's been coached."
Those attributes attracted the Eagles to Smith. The team needs pass rushers, and Smith has evolved into a quality one. It happened only after it became clear that he lacked a future as a passer.
Birds pick up QB
The Eagles added Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to their haul of undrafted rookie free agents by agreeing to terms, according to a league source.
Key offseason dates for the Eagles:
Friday-Sunday: Rookie minicamp
May 27-29: Organized team activities
June 2, 3 and 5: Organized team activities
June 9-12: Organized team activities
June 17-19: Mandatory minicamp