Every year, there are a handful of prospects who force NFL decision-makers to do a deeper dive into their college film after blowing up the Senior Bowl.
East Carolina offensive tackle D’Ante Smith is one of those players in the 2021 draft class. Smith was one of the big winners at the weigh-in process, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 294 pounds with an 85-inch wingspan and 35-inch arms. When it came time to take the field, Smith more than held his own during the one-on-one drills and proved that he belonged.
An experienced player with a ton of starts to his name, Smith recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his Senior Bowl performance, his wrestling background, and what kind of skill set he brings to the next level.
JM: You actually lettered in wrestling in high school. You competed in the heavyweight division. What was that like?
DS: Wrestling taught me how to find my balance. I learned how to use my hands and how to move my feet. It also taught me a little bit more about my body and how I like to move. It helped me out a lot.
JM: It sounds like wrestling made you a better offensive lineman. It’s easy to see why. The similarities in competing in close quarters have to count for something.
DS: Definitely. Like I was saying, I learned how to use my hands and my feet together. It taught me how to sync those two parts of my body together. I learned a lot about my body. I play the position with greater balance because of my wrestling background. As an offensive lineman, it’s imperative that you understand your body and how it moves. Wrestling gave me that clarity.
JM: I read that once you squat lifted 530 pounds. Is that true?
DS: I used to squat a lot (laughs). I used to put a lot of weight on my back. I don’t remember what my personal best was. This was a long time ago. I haven’t done something like that in a while. I don’t lift crazy weights like that anymore. I was young when I did that. I was probably like 18 years old when I was lifting like that.
JM: That’s awesome. What was your experience like at this year’s Senior Bowl?
DS: I had a great experience. First and foremost, I learned a lot from the coaches. I already know that I can take what I learned down there and apply it to my game. I tried some new things on the field and I can already see that it made a difference. I enjoyed competing against the defensive linemen down there.
It was such a useful experience. It taught me a lot about where I’m at with my game and what I need to work on technique-wise. I’m gonna keep improving. The Senior Bowl made me a better player at the end of the day. I enjoyed the entire week. It was a great experience.
JM: I love to hear that. I thought you were one of the big winners at the weigh-in. You have an 85-inch wingspan and 35-inch arms. You had the longest arms of any offensive lineman down there. How do you use that length to give you an advantage on the edge?
DS: I just try to play football at the end of the day. I try to get my hands on them. My coaches have always preached that. ‘Get your hands on them, D’Ante.’ I can’t create any space between me and the pass rusher. That’s what I try to do. I try to use my arms for what they are and I let my feet and my hands take me the rest of the way.
JM: I know that you met with all 32 teams formally at the Senior Bowl. Did any of those meetings stick out to you as especially productive?
DS: Every meeting was an eye-opener. Every team had certain things they wanted to ask about. They wanted to get to know me on a more personal level. They were trying to get a feel for me and who I am as a football player.
JM: Did any of their questions take you by surprise?
DS: No, I can’t say that they did. Nothing really caught me off guard or took me by surprise. If there was a question that was a little bit unique, I just figured that it’s a question they feel needed answering. I just answered all of their questions. I can’t remember anything too crazy.
JM: That’s a good thing. You talked about enjoying competing against some of the defensive linemen at the Senior Bowl. Any names in particular?
DS: I had a great time going up against Quincy Roche from Miami. I’ve played against him once before. I thought he had a great week. I liked going up against him. I wanted to practice with [Boogie] Basham from Wake Forest more but I was matched up with William Bradley-King from Baylor. He’s also a very good player.
JM: Those are some great names. It’s inevitable that somebody is going to label you a “small school prospect” throughout this process. How do you typically respond?
DS: If you ask me, I played in the American Athletic Conference. We play against a lot of great competition and we have a lot of great athletes that play their football here. We always say that we’re part of the “Power Six” because we feel like we belong. A lot of great athletes come out of this conference. I would never let that deter me. Not at all. I don’t even pay attention to it.
JM: You’ve played both as an offensive tackle and as an offensive guard. Do you have a feel for which position you’ll play at the next level?
DS: I don’t really have a feel for that. The teams at the Senior Bowl told me they wanted to see me play a few different positions. I practiced as both a tackle and a guard at the Senior Bowl. All 32 teams see me as a versatile player. I’m hoping to play multiple positions in the NFL, but I think I would be a great fit at tackle.
JM: What’s your favorite part of playing on the offensive line?
DS: It’s a game inside of the game. There’s more to it than meets the eye.
JM: Do you have a pass set that you prefer?
DS: It really just depends on which technique I’m using. If I have a tight box, I might have to home set him. I really like to jump set people sometimes so I can get my hands on them. Different situations call for different sets. I just like to work different sets for different occasions. I have to mix up my looks and keep the defensive linemen guessing. I can’t let him get an easy read on me.
JM: That makes sense. Which scheme are you most familiar with and do you think there’s one scheme that fits you best?
DS: I played for a couple of different offensive coordinators at East Carolina. I feel like I can play in any scheme. I played for multiple offensive line coaches as well. I’ve learned so much along the way. I always adapted well to the changes we made on offense. I think I can fit any scheme.
JM: If you could block for any NFL quarterback, who would it be and why?
DS: That’s easy. Gardner Minshew. We played together at East Carolina. We have a great friendship and a personal relationship. I would love to block for him at the next level.
JM: That’s terrific. I’ve really appreciated your time tonight, D’Ante. In closing, what kind of impact is D’Ante Smith going to make at the next level?
DS: I know I’m gonna be a first-year starter. I think I’m a left or right tackle at the next level. I’m gonna change the game for my team. I’m ready to get in the building. I can’t wait to learn from the veteran players. I’m gonna prove myself to my teammates. I’m a full-time pro.