Jags' Smith elevates to starting lineup

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A week after changing defensive schemes, the Jacksonville Jaguars are changing defensive personnel.

Second-year player Bryan Smith, signed off St. Louis' practice squad six weeks ago, will make his first career start Sunday at the New York Jets. Smith replaces defensive end Quentin Groves, a former second-round pick who has struggled to find a role with the Jaguars (4-4).

Smith, a third-round pick by Philadelphia in 2008, was inactive for every game last season. He was waived in final roster cuts in September, then signed with the Rams.

The Jaguars plucked the 6-foot-2, 250-pound lineman off the practice squad three weeks later, and he's been working his way up the depth chart since.

"They were looking for a hard worker, and that's what I do," Smith said. "I'm a hard worker and a guy who wants to get in there and go after it."

Groves started three games this season, two at linebacker in Jacksonville's 3-4 scheme and then at end last week after coach Jack Del Rio switched back to a 4-3 alignment. The former Auburn star has just 2½ sacks and 31 tackles in 24 games.

Groves and Smith split repetitions, and Del Rio said Smith "played a little better."

Del Rio rewarded him with a starting role against the Jets (4-4), who became the sixth team in NFL history and the first since Buffalo in 1975 to run for more than 300 yards in consecutive games. They did it against Buffalo and Oakland, two of the league's worst run defenses.

Del Rio believes Smith can help the Jaguars stack up considerably better.

"Going to give him the opportunity, get a little more exposure and see if he can take advantage of the opportunity," Del Rio said. "He's done a nice job since he's joined our football team of learning our defense, fitting in, finding a niche for himself, brings good energy. We'll give him an opportunity."

Smith was a two-time All-American at McNeese State, where he finished his career with a school-record 31 sacks in 31 games. He also had 187 tackles, 56½ tackles for loss and was named the Southland Conference's defensive player of the year as a junior in 2006.

Not bad considering he didn't play football until his junior year at Newton (Texas) High School. He lettered in basketball and track before trying football. He made such an impact his senior year that he started getting scholarship offers from colleges.

He chose McNeese State, where his track background helped him become a dominant pass rusher.

He earned an invitation to the Hula Bowl and the NFL combine, but was overshadowed in the 2008 draft by fellow defensive ends Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Lawrence Jackson, Calais Campbell, Phillip Merling and Groves. There was even talk about Smith playing outside linebacker.

Although Smith said he could play either position, he acknowledged feeling more comfortable with his hand on the ground.

"There's not much difference," Smith said. "Once the whistle blows and the guy says 'hut,' it's all football and that's all I take it as. ... I can do it all. It doesn't bother me. It's all part of the game."

Smith played about 20 snaps last week against Kansas City and finished with three quarterback hurries, showing enough promise to earn more repetitions.

"I think I did well," he said. "I just got after it and mixed it up with the guys."