With a year of American football under his belt, things have begun to slow down for Jets tight end Hayden Smith.
"Look it's night and day really," he told me on this week's "Jets Talk LIVE" installment. "I came in last year, really having only watched football from a spectator's perspective. Coming and trying to learn the nuances on offense, also being able to learn the terminology on what we're talking about when we're looking at things on defense. It was just information overload at times and it took a lot of effort really just trying to break it up and slowly learn things as we progressed."
The 6'6", 255-pound Australian, who was an accomplished rugby player for the English club Saracens, had never put on football pads when he signed with the Jets last spring.
"It was quite weird," he said of the transition. "First of all it took me forever to actually figure out how to do the helmet up. I remember running around on the practice field and having to have the coaches actually do the straps up in-between, so it was a bit of a nightmare for the first few days. I got comfortable with that and then to put the pads on again that was something else to get used to. The big part about it is actually having a helmet on completely changes the dynamic of the game."
Smith started the 2012 campaign on the Jets practice squad before being elevated to the active roster midway through the season. The 28-year-old Smith appeared in five contests, recording his first career reception against the Chargers in Week 16.
"Obviously I developed throughout the year and started to get more comfortable with just the game of football really. It's really hard to appreciate just how intricate the game is especially at this level," he said. "But football in general is an incredibly intricate and detailed game, so that's definitely a process you have to get used to and something that isn't necessarily prevalent in rugby."
Even though he is learning his second offensive system in as many years, Smith is in a much better place as he attacks Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast terminology.
"Luckily a lot of the things in football are quite common — some of the different schemes and things like that," he said. "The good thing about the second year is I no longer have to learn all those big schematic things. I can relate some things to things I learned last year, but once again obviously a new offense. The whole process of learning it is a lot easier the second time around."
The departure of Dustin Keller in free agency has left Jeff Cumberland, Konrad Reuland and Smith as the only returning vets at tight end. Rookies Chris Pantale and Mike Shanahan are also competing at OTAs.
"Look I think there are always opportunities to play. You just have to put your best foot forward and make the most of those opportunities," Smith said. "So it's not so much looking at the big picture and saying, 'I can do something here.' It's really like I said — that same process of trying to get a little bit better every day, not get too far ahead of yourself take care of what you're doing and then the end result should take care of itself."
In addition to staying in the playbook, Smith uses the film room to speed up his learning curve.
"I watch film on a number of tight ends. Jason Witten is obviously a tremendous player, very good fundamentally with his techniques and everything like that," he said. "I watched Dustin a lot last year and he was great particularly in the passing game with his techniques and the way he set up defenders.
"Really I'm just trying to be a sponge and whenever I'm watching film or any games or watching Eagles tape from the past couple of years, you're really just trying to take in the little nuances that each player's doing in their positions. No one in particular, but I'm just trying to get everything from everyone."
Smith is in a much better place as he starts his second season. In the weeks and months ahead, we will see if he is ready to increase his role and become more of a contributor for a team that is constantly stressing competition.
"A lot of the stress and the thinking have been lifted," said the big Australian. "So it allows you to kind of be out there and focus on the execution of what you're trying to do rather than wondering, 'Is this what I'm supposed to be doing?' So it really is a very nice feeling to be out there a second time around as opposed to last year."