Cincinnati left tackle D’Ante Smith is having a special rookie season. Smith, 21, is a second teamer on the depth chart as the Bengals take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Super Bowl LVI (56) in Los Angeles on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. (NBC).
Smith made 30 starts during his career at East Carolina. He played one game in 2020 — the season opener — a 51-28 loss to Central Florida in Greenville. An injury caused Smith to forgo the remainder of his senior season, but he showed Cincinnati enough at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine to be its fourth-round draft pick and the 139th selection overall in the 2021 draft.
“The Bengals are going to get the best version of me,” said Smith, who signed a 4-year deal with a base value of $3.48 million.
Smith dealt with a knee ailment this season, going on injured reserve on Oct. 16. He returned to active status on Dec. 18. Smith started at Cleveland on Jan. 9 and saw action in a 27-24 win at Kansas City in the AFC championship on Jan. 30.
Only 106 players of 1,696 in the league will dress for Sunday night’s game.
“You never know how many times you’re going to get an opportunity to do what he’s getting an opportunity to do,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “And he’s getting an opportunity his first year. I texted with him last weekend, just told him congratulations, enjoy the experience. But certainly it’s been a little bit of a dream season for him. … To be having that experience in his first year is pretty special.”
Smith played football and wrestled at Grovetown (GA) High School. He initially committed to Appalachian State before signing with the Pirates in 2016. He has a degree in economics from ECU.
Smith, currently listed as 6 feet, 5 inches and 294 pounds, wore No. 67 for the Pirates. He has jersey No. 70 with the Bengals.
Super Bowl champs from ECU
In 2017, Hoist the Colours compiled a list of Super Bowl champions who played at ECU..
The group of 15 former Pirates started with Edenton native Zack Valentine with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1980. The 1988 Washington Redskins had two former ECU players, Steve Hamilton and Reggie Branch. Earnest Byner played a prominent role for the Redskins in 1992. Vinson Smith was with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993.
Linebacker Robert Jones was a key performer for Dallas in 1993, 1994 and 1996. His son, Zay, also was exceptional for the Pirates as a receiver and is now with the Las Vegas Raiders.
John Jett was a punter for the Cowboys in 1994 and 1996. George Koonce played for Green Bay in 1997.
Devone Claybrooks was with Tampa Bay in 2003. Guy Whimper played for the New York Giants in 2008. C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross got rings with Green Bay in 2011.
Linval Joseph was a champion with the Giants in 2012. Vonta Leach won with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. Michael Brooks was on Seattle’s practice squad when the Seahawks took the Lombardi Trophy in 2014.
The lone Pirate to score in a Super Bowl was running back Earnest Byner, who had a 10-yard touchdown reception from Mark Rypien in SB XXVI, a 37-24 Redskins win over Buffalo.
Byner had 14 rushes for 49 yards in that Super Bowl at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. He also had three catches for 24 yards.
Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian and receiver Tyler Snead have decided to prepare for the NFL draft rather than use their remaining eligibility with the Pirates.
McMillian had 38 solo tackles and 18 assists with five interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 2021.
Snead had 67 catches for 855 yards and four touchdowns last season. He had 1,313 all-purpose yards.
“I spent a good bit of time over the break speaking with both of those young men about this, and the thing I tried to do is I tried to make available to them a lot of resources,” Houston said, “Whether it was scouts or agents or people in the scouting departments with different NFL teams, we provided a lot of people for them to talk with to provide advice. And then they made the decision that they thought was best for their futures.
“Certainly pulling for both of them. We’ll have Pro Day coming up here in late March. And so there’ll be an opportunity for the NFL Scouts to come here and evaluate not only those two, but also our graduating seniors that are working out for Pro Day. And I’m optimistic that we’ll have all 32 (NFL) teams here for Pro Day.”
Houston has brought in Re’quan Boyette as outside receivers coach and Justin Anderson as director of player personnel and recruiting.
“Re’quan he’s from Eastern North Carolina (Wilson), so he is no stranger to the area and he has a great resume, you know, working for Coach David Cutcliffe for the past decade at Duke —and in a variety of roles and including being co-offensive coordinator this past year. Re’quan brings a lot to the table. I think he’s a great fit just personality wise with our staff. And I think the energy and the enthusiasm that he’s going to bring to that wideout position is going to be seen as an immediate impact.”
Anderson also arrives from an ACC program.
“Justin comes to us from the University of Virginia where he’s held that title there for the past six, seven years with Bronco Mendenhall’s staff,” Houston said. “He came with Coach Mendenhall from BYU, where he held a position there administratively on the BYU staff.
“Before that, he was an on-the-field coach and including making it to be a passing game coordinator at Nicholls State. So Justin brings a lot of experience and a lot of professionalism to that position.”
Houston explained Anderson’s role.
“He’s kind of the general manager, so he oversees recruiting and manages the rosters,” Houston said. “It’s a position that you know is very demanding. He will have a staff underneath him with four full-time employees, a graduate assistant and several student assistants. He really manages the day-to-day of our recruiting operations.”
The ECU staff was on the road for much of January.
“We were focused primarily on the 2023 class, given the fact that we’re basically done with 2022 high school recruits,” Houston said. “Anybody we add to the roster from here on out will be from the transfer portal. Big focus on the 2023 class. Had Junior Day (Jan. 29). Had a really strong group of student-athletes here on campus. I think that we’re continuing to recruit a higher caliber of student-athlete out of the high school ranks.”
The ECU coach talked about recruiting priorities by position.
“We’re recruiting all across the board to a degree, but I feel like our defensive line and most likely our offensive line are in really good shape,” Houston said. “You can never have enough good offensive linemen. You’ll still take a couple there. I think we got to do a good job with our linebacker position with the age of some of our guys we have in that room, we’re going to start to graduate some of our top guys. We got to be ready to replace those guys.
“Depending on how everything shakes out at the quarterback position, you could see us take a quarterback in this class, just with age and Holton (Ahlers) graduating. and then our guys in that room getting older. So there’s lots of places you’ll see us go with next year’s class.”
Arrival from portal
The Pirates have signed offensive lineman Ben Johnson (6-4, 300) from Marist.
“Ben, he is a very high caliber player,” Houston said “He has been a multiple year starter at Marist. He brings just a lot of experience, older guy, highly intelligent, plays with a lot of physicality and edge. He’s a guy we expect to come in and compete immediately for an interior offensive line spot.”
The Pirates are planning to start spring practice on March 15.
“We’ll be going on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons and then Saturday mornings,” Houston said.. “We’re going to go four times a week and get the practices in there in pretty quick fashion. The spring game will be April 9.”
Among the spring priorities will be incorporating new players into the program.
“We’ve got 15 mid-year kids,” Houston said. “So getting an opportunity to get those guys acclimated to our systems — just our everything — how we operate, how we practice. I think that we had a great opportunity to spend some time with our young guys back during bowl prep, but continue to develop our young guys there with some of the guys that we had graduating. Figuring out who wants to step into those spots on both sides of the ball.
“I think it’s important that we improve special teams-wise over our performance from last year. So that will be a big emphasis for the spring as well. We’ve got a lot of things we want to address this spring.”
2022 season opener
N.C. State is scheduled to come to Greenville for ECU’s 2022 season opener on Sept. 3.
“Excited to have an ACC opponent coming in here for the opener,” Houston said. “I hope it excites our fan base. You know we need 51,000 for that game. We need it sold out. And so I would be highly-disappointed if it wasn’t sold out, based on what the student-athletes have done to bring the program back to a very positive place.
“N.C. State is going to come in here probably ranked in the top 10 in the country, which is the highest ranking they’ve had in any recent memory. So it should be a great matchup, great challenge for us.”
Houston believes expanding the College Football Playoff would be good for the game.
“It’d be good for the sport if they expanded the playoff,” he said. “I mean, I think the excitement with Cincinnati being in the playoff this year, and certainly they showed that they belonged with the way they played against Alabama. But I just think it’s a great opportunity to allow more schools an opportunity to compete for the national championship. And I think with the strength of the AAC, playoff expansion would allow us to have a chance to have someone in that playoff year in and year out.”