TERRELL, Texas -- From the time he was a kid, Jason Smith was pretty sure he'd end up in the NFL. It was everyone else who needed convincing.
His coach at Dallas' W.T. White High School, the legendary Mike Zoffuto, moved the tall, lanky kid from left tackle to tight end because he thought it was his only chance to attract college recruiters. And one by one, SEC powerhouses such as Florida and Alabama sent representatives to the inner-city school -- only they were there to look at two of Smith's teammates.
Perennial Big 12 South doormat Baylor and Houston were the only schools to show interest in Smith, who admits to "not being able to catch a cold" from his tight end spot. Smith checked in at No. 95 on the Dallas Morning News' area top 100 list -- a spot normally reserved for the stray kicker or punter.
"I begged TCU to look at Jason," said former W.T. White assistant Billy Thompson, who'd played defensive end at the school when it was in the Southwest Conference. "I knew if he could get into a Division I school and eat at a training table every day, he would take off."
Five years later, Smith has a legitimate shot to become the first Big 12 player selected No. 1 overall. In a process in which scouts and draft experts desperately try to poke holes in a player's skill set, Smith may be as close to a sure thing as you'll find.
"He is really one of those 10-year left tackle type guys," said one NFC general manager who requested anonymity. "He is really in my eyes a No. 1 guy. You'd love to have a guy like that. He's a Walter Jones left tackle who could play forever. He's got it all with the size and athletic ability. He's clean."
That Smith somehow ended up in this spot is testament to his perseverance and uncanny networking skills. One former coach described him as "an old soul," and that's apparent to anyone who has crossed paths with him. Both in looks and demeanor, he seems six or seven years older than his 22 years. On a foggy spring morning in Waco, he interrupted his daily workout to talk about his rise, which is anything but sudden.
Smith was raised by his maternal grandmother and mother in a gritty section of northwest Dallas called North Park that was a breeding ground for drug dealers and gang violence. The fact that one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, Highland Park, was about two miles away only reinforced Smith's goal to reach the NFL.
As a 10-year-old, Smith would ride his bike through Highland Park, the area where Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford grew up, and daydream about a better life for his family.
Smith used the hardships as motivation, and none of his coaches can recall him complaining. At age 12, he launched a lawn service ("The Cutting Edge") and posted fliers around the neighborhood. For Christmas, he would ask for a leaf blower or weed whacker instead of video games.
"I would stop by and visit with lawn service guys all the time," Smith said. "What they didn't know is that I was studying what sort of equipment they had."
When Smith saved up enough to buy a green Craftsman push mower, the real profits started to roll in.
"None of us could figure out how Jason showed up for practice every day when he basically had a full-time job," Thompson said. "I'm pretty sure he worked at a pet shop too. About 90 percent of our job was just getting the kids to practice. But you never had to say a word to Jason. He was just there."
Smith continued mowing lawns through his freshman year at Baylor before deciding to take a job with City Tire and Battery in Waco. He would attend class, go to spring practice and then report for duty changing tires and organizing the garage. Teammates and friends would call him at all hours of the night when they had car trouble and Smith always showed up with his toolbox.
The Cowboys Way
Smith's grandmother, Carolyn Jordan, grew up riding horses and she started taking him and his older brother Duane to team roping events when they were kids. It was there where Smith met a man named Glenn Caldwell who would become a father figure to him. Caldwell, whose parents had been migrant workers, owned an 80-acre ranch in Terrell and he introduced Smith to ranching. Caldwell hosted roping events at his "Big B Ranch" on weekends and took a special interest in Smith.
"You could just tell that he was a different type person," said Smith. "I watched the way he treated his wife and kids, and I wanted to be like him. Once I started going down there, he couldn't get me to leave."
On a brilliant spring day in late March, Caldwell took a reporter through some of the same pastures Smith helped clear. Caldwell's son, Corey, and Smith had spent hours performing chores on the ranch before they'd received permission to rope steers in an arena on the property. When Smith became serious about football in high school, he tilled the sand in the arena and pulled tires through it to increase his strength. And when he wasn't roping steers, he was breaking colts. At 6-foot-5, 309 pounds, Smith looks like someone who'd rely on brute strength to break a horse, but he's offended by that suggestion.
"It's not something you rush," he said. "I just outthink them."
Smith took a black and white paint horse named Diamond to college with him. He kept it on three acres outside Waco and rode as much as possible. Smith was crushed when Caldwell traded the horse for a bull during his junior year at Baylor, but he eventually got the message.
"He didn't want me riding anymore," Smith said.
Destined for the NFL
During his freshman year, Smith kept dropping by Baylor coach Guy Morriss' office, asking him for the blueprint to playing in the NFL. Morriss, who reached Super Bowls as a player with the Eagles and Patriots, couldn't figure out why a scout team player was "pestering" him about the NFL.
"I finally gave him a notebook full of things to do," Morriss said. "Eating right, recovery, resting, sleeping, weightlifting, limiting your social life, studying film and his playbook. It was a deal of trust. He knew I'd been there, so he hung on every word."
After an injury-plagued junior season in 2007, which resulted in Morriss' dismissal, Smith filled out his paperwork to enter the NFL draft. He learned through the evaluation process that he was projected as a second- or third-round pick, and he was excited about that. But a chance meeting with incoming coach Art Briles caused Smith to second-guess his decision.
When the two ended up on treadmills next to each other shortly after Briles was hired, the new coach offered Smith the following advice:
"If you leave now, you can go visit someone's ranch," Briles told Smith, "but if you stay this year, you're gonna own the ranch."
Smith, who was fiercely loyal to Morriss, began to entertain the idea of staying another year. He also said watching the coaching staff in the weight room had a big influence on him.
"Coach Briles and his assistant were doing power cleans and overhead split jerks," said Smith. "I thought, 'If these guys coach the way they work out, I better stick around.'"
Smith went on to become an All-American his senior season and didn't give up a sack. He studied film of Virginia's Eugene Monroe early in the 2008 season because he wanted to measure himself against one of the top left tackles in the nation. He also began preparing weeks ahead for some of the Big 12's top defensive ends such as Oklahoma's Auston English and Texas' Brian Orakpo. When Orakpo had to miss the 2008 game with an injury, Smith took his frustration out on his replacement, Sergio Kindle.
"Orakpo was the best defensive end in the nation on paper and on film," Smith said. "I would tell him about his every move."
Now there's a chance that both players could be selected in the top 10 of this April's NFL draft. Until draft day, though, Smith is serving as a volunteer assistant coach during Baylor's spring practice. He's spending a lot of time tutoring his potential replacement at left tackle, Danny Watkins.
Smith has had a huge role in making Baylor competitive for the first time in years, and he'll give the program even more credibility on draft day. When ESPN2's "First Take" asked Smith to appear recently, he was decked out in Baylor gear.
"He's someone we can point to," Briles said of Smith. "You can hang your hat on the respect that Jason has earned for this program."
About 29 years ago, Baylor sent its best player ever to the NFL. His name is Mike Singletary, and he's about to have a run for his money.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com