ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Greg Stewart remembers watching Chiefs rookie cornerback Tremon Smith, then a high school quarterback, doing “crazy stuff, freaky stuff” with a skill set destined to play football on Sundays one day.
“I know a lot of coaches, you want guys that's got dog in them,” said Stewart, who recruited Smith to Central Arkansas. “And he's got dog.”
Second-round pick Breeland Speaks and other early selections dominate discussion of the Chiefs' 2018 draft class, but special teams coordinator Dave Toub says the rookie he's most excited to see in a preseason game is Smith.
"The guy that really stands out in my mind right now is Tremon,” Toub said. “He showed a little punt returner skills today the way he catches the ball and gets to top speed so fast, it's pretty impressive. Can't wait to see him in a game.”
Smith took a different path than he imagined from Anniston, Ala., a journey that detoured through Central Arkansas before landing Kansas City.
“I always wanted to go to Auburn or Alabama since I'm from Alabama, those were my two big schools but it didn't work out because I qualified late,” Smith said.
Stewart, currently defensive coordinator at South Alabama, discovered Smith while scouting for Jacksonville State. When Stewart joined the staff at Central Arkansas as defensive coordinator, he immediately targeted Smith to join him there.
Smith was a two-way players for Saks High School in Anniston, setting the school record for touchdowns. But Stewart believed cornerback was his natural position. He thinks Smith's experience on offense benefit his transition to defense.
“He was good at baiting quarterbacks,” Stewart said. “He's smart, he's got savvy. He's got football savvy.”
Finding an advocate in Stewart proved fortuitous for Smith.
“I look at him like a father figure,” Smith said. “He believed in me, he saw how much I loved football. He saw me playing at this level. I can thank him for a lot of my success right now just believing in me from the jump.”
Smith didn't receive an invite to the combine, finding himself on the outside looking in once again. But the 6-foot, 190-pound rookie ran a blistering 4.32 40-yard dash at his pro day, and that coupled with his college clips showcasing his burst caught the attention of Chiefs' scouts.
“He's not as fast as Tyreek (Hill), that's a whole other level,” Toub said. “He's very, very fast, he's probably our second-fastest player.”
Secondary/cornerbacks coach Al Harris said his aggressive style of play stood out on film.
“Just from watching his tape in college, that's kind of what grabbed me toward Smith,” Harris said during OTAs in May. “Just watching how he played in college, how aggressive he was.
Smith impressed immediately during the team's rookie minicamp in May, showcasing the ball skills that led to 15 interceptions in college and another 53 passes defended. But his speed in the return game stood out even when he arrived at OTAs with the veterans.
“He didn't do it a lot in college but you see bursts when you see it,” Toub said. “You don't need a lot of clips to see talent.”
Smith returned 25 punts his junior season for 244 yards. He earned Southland Conference special teams player of the week during his junior season after returning two punts for 77 including a 47-yard touchdown return against Arkansas State. After that performance teams started kicking away from the elusive speedster.
“I'm starting over again,” Smith said. “So they kick me a few balls I can start that over again.”
Smith embraces the role as kick returner. He played quarterback in high school and relishes any opportunity he gets to put the ball in his hands.
“I love it, it's fun,” Smith said. “I played offense so I always want the ball in my hands so anytime I get the ball in my hands I'm trying to score.”
Smith says Hill offered him simple advice for improving as return specialist.
“Just run fast,” Smith said with a laugh. “Set up the defense, run as fast as you can. He just makes me go full speed all the time just seeing him run. He might not be going full speed but still there's nobody catching him. I just find the hole and hit it as fast as I can.”
His lack of experience as a punt returner actually boosts the case for Smith in the eyes of Toub.
“We feel like he's just scratching the surface, he keeps getting better and better every day,” Toub said. “He's a real good catcher, really good first step. You never know what a guy's going to do until he has live bullets come down trying to tackle him. We've got to wait and see but we're excited.”
Smith's hardest work may come where he has the most experience. He must not only adjust to the difference in speed from the NCAA FCS-level to the NFL but pickup up a new defensive system as well.
“OTAs and rookie camp helped me a lot just getting out here getting the movements down pat,” Smith said.
Stewart says Smith has a stubborn aggressive streak that all great corners have. He recalls a game when Stewart wanted Smith to switch from the team's normal press-man coverage to off coverage. Smith shook his head and refused.
“The very next play they tried to go at him again and I think he picked it,” Stewart said. “He was always the guy to keep you on your toes but he was also the guy who always kept the team where they were supposed to be, in a good way.”
Harris says the aggressiveness and toughness Smith displayed showed up during OTAs.
“You see flashes of that out here at times but right now he's learning, it's a lot we're throwing at him,” Harris said.
Smith's natural ability didn't always come out during OTAs, Harris said. That's natural for young players at this stage with much still to learn. Rookies often find themselves thinking rather than reacting. Time in the playbook and experience allows good players to flip a switch during a training camp where it all comes together, Harris explained.
Smith feels just that happening.
“Now that I've got the movement down path I knew what they expected coming in to training camp, I can fly around,” Smith said. “That's a part of being in my playbook, learning the plays, knowing when to check and not to check. Just knowing what I'm supposed to do before the play even starts and just knowing the receiver splits and all that. It's finally clicking and I can make the movement faster.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said he sees the instincts and aggression Smith displayed in college flashing on the training camp fields.
“I think so,” Sutton said. “I think he's been highly competitive out here and done a great job. We've just got to keep him going.”
Smith has no lack of confidence, Stewart explains, which is one of many reasons he believes he make an impact with the Chiefs.
“That's one of the things you love about him,” Stewart said. “He'a got unbelievable ball skills. He's got great confidence, he's got a great work ethic. I'd take a sack full of him. I'm sure Kansas City might too."