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“Robbie and I had a moment in the previous Calgary game.”
Toronto Argonauts head coach Cory Chamblin burst into laughter when asked about whether rookie defensive end Robbie Smith had earned his trust. It may be easy to laugh now, but it wasn’t then.
It was during a game in mid-July at McMahon Stadium. Midway through the third quarter, with Calgary leading by 10 points, Chris Rainey had returned a punt, when at the end of the play Smith was flagged for roughing.
It was not a smart penalty and it infuriated the coach. Chamblin took a handful of steps onto the field, meeting the rookie before he got to the sideline. Chamblin yelled at Smith for a prolonged period, after which the player jogged to the bench, where he was met by the coach for round two.
“A couple of weeks after that he was starting,” quickly added the coach, still smiling broadly when thinking back to the incident. “That moment was because of what I saw inside of him in terms of his game.”
It’s unfortunate that the one-way shouting match overshadowed the first sack of Smith’s career, which occurred in the first quarter of that game. It was a thing of beauty, a move that illustrated why the Argos selected him with the ninth-overall pick in this year’s CFL draft. It showed off his speed, power, and ability to finish – but all everyone was talking about post-game was the penalty and its aftermath.
“I didn’t really look at it as a negative thing because I did something wrong,” said Smith, also able to now laugh about the Southern Alberta exchange. “I needed to be able to face the consequences of whatever my actions were.”
The Laurier product has been able to make tremendous strides in the last several games, starting the last four, and recording his first multiple-sack performance in the Argos last game, a 46-17 win in Ottawa.
“I think he really came into his own in the last game,” Chamblin told Argonauts.ca. “It wasn’t just that he got two sacks, but one of them was a change-up pass-rush move, one that I never thought would work, but it worked for him. He’s understanding when to rush, and when to use certain types of rushes. He understands he’s not starting because of where he’s from, he’s starting because of his talent and his production. I definitely see him playing for years to come in this league and one day maybe even leading this league in sacks.”
Smith attracted more than just CFL interest and received invitations to the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills mini-camps. Not bad for the kid from Brampton’s St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School.
His ability hasn’t been lost on the man who lines up beside him. At one point in his career, defensive tackle Cleyon Laing also had to fight the stigma that he was only starting because he was Canadian.
“Every young Canadian that comes into the league, I try to get it into their mind that we need to eliminate that mindset – that we’re only on the field because we’re Canadian,” explained the Edmonton native. “In Robbie’s case there is no drop-off when he’s on the field.”
Smith’s physical skills are obvious. At 6’2” and a hair under 250 pounds, he showed off strength, agility and speed at the CFL Combine. His 40-yard dash time of 4.78 seconds was faster than all the linebackers and even a couple of the defensive backs.
It’s now the mental aspect of the game that he’s looking to master.
“Being able to focus on the right cues, and being able to focus on the right things,” said Smith of his next challenges. “Knowing where I’m supposed to be and paying attention to my eyes, my hands and my feet on every play. That’s something all the coaches really enforce, even our veteran d-linemen, that’s something we talk a lot about too.”
Whatever he and the coaches are doing is working. One of the biggest things a rookie needs to do is adjust to the speed of the game. Smith says that’s happening for him now.
“Definitely. In the last four games it’s slowed down a lot for me,” admitted the former Golden Hawk. “Getting to play a little bit more and getting used to the game – that helped a lot.”
The progress of Smith is becoming a major storyline. The Argos were hoping to see speedy development from their draft pick, and he’s starting to live up to those expectations – perhaps even sooner than had been anticipated.