Zach Smith is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to playing football at a professional level.
The Chadron State College graduating senior punted for the Eagles from 2013 to 2016, and will go down among the greatest of all time to play the position at CSC. He finished his college career with an average per punt of 40.6 yards, which is second-best all-time. On the final attempt of his career, he booted a 51-yarder to pass CSC Hall of Famer Jarod Moeller atop the record book for career punt yards.
Most tales of personal football glory end there. Smith is giving himself a chance to continue in the sport, however, by attending the NFL Regional Combine for kicking specialists on February 26 in Washington, D.C.
“When I went to South Carolina for the ‘D2 Versus NAIA Challenge’, Smith says, “they bumped me up to the Division I FCS game. A lot of the coaches there were impressed. They wanted to see if I was going to a combine and they said if I didn’t, I’d be stupid.”
Smith thought he performed his best at the FCS Scout Bowl and was gratified to hear that some of his bowl teammates were equally impressed.
“A couple of the guys asked me why I went Division II and wasn’t a Division I player,” he says.
In South Carolina, he says, some FCS players who had faced the Eagles in years’ past recognized Chadron State as a former opponent who played them tough on the road and showed their respect. Idaho State’s Hayden Stout, a linebacker, and wide receiver Zac Hoover of Missouri State were two such players on the FCS Scout Bowl roster.
Ever the relationship builder, Smith has been relying on a trusted ally he made through Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play to help him prepare for the combine and refine his skills. Former New Mexico Highlands University All-American punter Patrick Carney has been in touch with his rival punter at CSC ever since the teams met in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 2014. Carney went on to receive an invitation to the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl following that season.
“He’s taught me a lot about punting the last couple of years and helped me tremendously,” says Smith. “We met and talked at halftime of the game down there, and we’ve been sharing tips back and forth and swapping film and getting better together ever since.”
In between student teaching and coaching high school basketball, he trains for the combine. Smith’s regimen consists of mostly lifting, running, extensive flexibility work, and of course, kicking. He is focusing to improve on the finer points of his mechanics such as his leg swing. All of his workouts are captured on video, which Carney can then break down in great detail and provide feedback from long-distance, at home in California.
“He’s really improving well,” offers Carney. “He is unbelievable to teach, as I just tell him the corrections to make and he makes them. He’s been through a lot and has always had a huge smile going through it. Zach can go as far as he wants as long as he is willing to continue working like he has been. Zach has a strong leg, great work ethic and even better love for the game. It’s a great set of ingredients to be successful in anything he does in life, which at present hopefully includes football.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Smith in his workouts is adjusting to the physical differences between the college football and the NFL ball.
“The pro ball is a lot longer,” remarks Smith. “The sweet spot isn’t right in the middle like a college ball, so I have to turn the ball more on my drop. Being a former baseball guy, the best comparison is like going from a metal bat to wood. It’s a completely different point of contact.”
Smith is cautiously optimistic headed into the combine. He’s done his research. He knows that punter Pat McAfee of Indianapolis recently retired. He understands that veteran contracts often guarantee elder punters like Dustin Colquitt of Kansas City a bigger salary than teams are willing to pay. He sees that opportunities exist for people like Chris Jones of Dallas, who came to the NFL from Division II Carson-Newman University.
He also understands the scarcity of openings at the position and that even elite college punters like Carney, who was a top NFL prospect coming out of NMHU, fail to make rosters every year. He knows that while skill players can be considered draft prospects by showing mere flashes at their combine, the specialists in the league are expected to perform flawlessly.
Nevertheless, the regional combine has recently launched the career of current pros Jordan Berry of Pittsburgh, Jacob Schum of Green Bay, and Pro Bowler Johnny Hekker of the Los Angeles Rams. Smith’s college numbers compare with those of all three players.
As far as Smith is concerned with playing at the next level, there’s only one way to find out.
“They’ll put us through all sorts of drills,” he says, “and my main goal is just to turn heads and get my name out there. I’ll do whatever they ask me. If there’s a Canadian team or another semi-pro league where an opportunity comes up, we’ll just see what the Big Man Upstairs has in store.”