METAIRIE, La. – Abram Smith was just trying to get on the field any way he could when he switched from running back to linebacker as a junior at Baylor in 2020.
It worked. Smith wound up leading the Bears in tackles in each of their final four games.
But as it turned out, Smith’s unorthodox path also shaped him into a better runner when he returned to his old position in 2021.
Not only could he see the field and read defenses better, but the 5-foot-11, 221-pounder became the kind of physical tone-setter Baylor needed to help transform its identity from a 2-7 team into Big 12 champions.
“I was definitely a more punishing runner,” said Smith, who finished fifth in the nation with 1,601 rushing yards and is now trying to earn a role in the New Orleans Saints‘ backfield as an undrafted rookie. “You know, my mom always told me to be the hammer and not the nail. So I just love imposing my will or dropping my shoulder on a [defensive back] or linebacker. I can make people miss, but I still feel more comfortable when I’m running somebody over.”
Smith said he weighed about 208 pounds earlier in his college career, then bulked up to 226 to play linebacker. When he returned to offense, he decided to keep some of that extra weight.
“I like the muscle mass that I put on. And I guess for me, I kind of looked better in pads if I’m being honest,” Smith said with a smile. “It looks a little intimidating … and gives me a better confidence in my running ability.”
Smith was originally recruited to Baylor by Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, but his career couldn’t have started worse. He tore the ACL in his right knee during the first spring practice and missed the 2017 season. He had previously torn the ACL in the same knee as a high school sophomore.
Smith returned in 2018 to a crowded backfield and didn’t see much playing time. But he made a big impact in special teams coverage, and he was so effective that Rhule’s staff suggested the move to linebacker before Rhule left for the NFL in January 2020.
However, as successful as Smith was at linebacker that season, the Bears struggled overall. And new coach Dave Aranda was blunt about what they were missing.
“Offensively in 2020, especially running the ball, we would go backwards,” Aranda said. “It would be first-and-10, and we would end third-and-17. I take full responsibility for all of that. But I just think coming off of that, there was just not a lot of confidence, not a lot of, ‘We’re gonna impose our will on ya.’
“I think Abram had a lot to do with [changing] it.”
The idea to switch Smith back to offense was collaborative. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes had just come from BYU, where he had overseen a similar transformation with current Atlanta Falcons rookie Tyler Allgeier. And he was looking for a runner to fit his wide-zone scheme. Baylor staff member David Wetzel suggested Smith.
“From the very first carry he got, it was like, ‘This is how it’s supposed to look,’” Aranda said.
Smith ran for more than 100 yards in each of the Bears’ first three games. Then the biggest turning point probably came in the fourth game, when they beat No. 14 Iowa State.
Aranda had used the Cyclones’ defense as an example to emulate in the spring, showing tape of their physical style and toughness. But Smith had two long runs in particular where he finished by plowing into three-time first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth II.
“I want to say every game there came a point where Abram got the ball on our sideline, and he drops his shoulder down and drives into a defender and runs him over and falls forward,” Aranda said. “And that is like the best illustration of who we are or who we’re trying to be.”
Aranda and Rhule also praised Smith for his team-first mindset and desire to improve. Aranda said he couldn’t recall anyone who spent so much extra time working one-on-one with coaches in the walk-through room in the middle of the team’s practice facility.
“He’s always been willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field and help the team win,” said Rhule, who added that could help Smith in New Orleans because “that’s what every NFL team is looking for.”
“A guy that can play running back and obviously lead the Big 12 in rushing and all the things he did this year, but also can play special teams, will be a physical player, is resilient,” Rhule said. “I mean, he’s demonstrated all the qualities of a winner during his time in college.”
Sure enough, Saints coach Dennis Allen highlighted Smith’s special teams ability as something that could get him on the field early – and impressed the Saints enough to offer him one of the largest guarantees of any undrafted rookie in the league ($222,000).
Meanwhile, Smith chose the Saints over other suitors because he also recognizes the opportunity in their backfield. Starter Alvin Kamara could potentially face a suspension after being arrested on a battery charge in February. Also, running back Mark Ingram II is 32 and heading into the final year of his contract.
The Saints still have backup Tony Jones Jr., among others, but they didn’t draft another running back and haven’t signed a veteran yet.
“I was a little bit surprised, a little bit upset [to go undrafted],” said Smith, who said Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas was one of the first to call and start courting him during the late rounds of the draft. “But you can kind of take that as a chip on your shoulder and just come into camp and kind of prove your worth. So I think not being drafted kind of gave me that little edge even more than I already had.”