It's been a long two years, now going on three for Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Jordan Smith.
He worked to adjust to the NFL after the Jaguars drafted him in the fourth round in 2021 and seemed to be serving a redshirt season of sports when he languished on the inactive list for 14 weeks, then spent one week on the NFL's reserve/COVID list before finally playing in the final two games of the season.
The turmoil of the failed Urban Meyer experiment didn't help, but then again it wasn't good for any player as the Jags stumbled to a 3-14 season.
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A new staff brought a breath of fresh air and coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell were more than willing to give Smith, the tallest edge rusher on the team at 6 feet 7 and blessed with speed and strength, every chance to make the team.
But on the first day of mandatory mini-camp, Smith injured his knee and was out for the season.
The Jaguars kept him on. Smith kept rehabbing. But entering his third professional season, was he running out of chances, especially on a team with the need to jump-start the pass rush?
Smith put his head down and did the only thing he knew.
"Overcoming adversity means staying disciplined and taking it day by day," he said. "Not overlooking anything. It's become more of a habit ... just being who I am and overcoming whatever hits me."
A reunion six years in the making
Here's one thing that helps: good friends. Loyal friends. Friends who have been through the same adversity.
And while Smith treasures the support of his Jaguars teammates and the faith the coaching staff has shown in him, his spirits got a lift on April 29, the third day of the NFL draft.
Smith was like any hardcore football fan: he was still locked into watching draft coverage. And when the Jaguars' pick came in the fourth round, the 127th selection, he listened with delight as the team picked University of Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller.
"Welcome to the family," Smith texted to Miller.
"He's my dog," Smith said of his former Gator roommate of one season.
"He's my guy," Miller countered. "One of the first people I got to know at Florida. When I got here, it was like seeing family again."
Six years ago, in their Gainesville dorm room, the two did what any two college teammates would: talk and dream about playing together on a Gator defense and a championship team.
A lot got in the way.
Roommates part ways
Smith was a redshirt freshman from Lithonia, Ga., and Miller was a true freshman from Lakeland when they met during off-season workouts in the summer of 2017. Both were signed by Jim McElwain and the Gators were coming off a second SEC East title in a row.
Of course, Smith and Miller talked about leading the Gator defense to a third, and perhaps a reverse of fortunes in the SEC Championship game.
They never played a down together for UF. Both got involved with seven other players in the fraudulent use of credit cards, the first blow in a disastrous season that saw McElwain fired after a 3-4 start.
Smith and Miller went their separate ways after that, even in the manner in which their cases were adjudicated and their next step in playing college football. Miller entered a pretrial intervention program a month after the initial charges were filed and Smith eventually pleaded no contest to one count of scheming to defraud four months later and received two years probation.
Miller decided to stay at Florida and new coach Dan Mullen reinstated him. But Smith decided to leave, played one season at Butler (Kan.) Community College, then transferred to Alabama-Birmingham.
They rehabilitated their image on and off the field.
Miller became a starter for the Gators in 2019 and in 23 games covering the next two seasons he had 13 tackles for losses, 8.5 sacks and batted down three passes. He also made the SEC All-Academic team twice.
He missed all but two games in 2021 because of his biceps injury, then returned and played 2022 with a Jones fracture of his foot and still had 8.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed.
Smith terrorized the Jayhawk Conference in 2018 with 22.5 tackles for losses and 11 sacks. In 22 games in two seasons at UAB, he had 23.5 tackles for losses and 12.5 sacks.
In short, he was nearly unblockable in college. Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke traded up nine spots in 2021 to grab Smith, hoping to jump-start a pass rush that was next-to-last in the NFL in sacks the previous season.
Following similar tracks
Miller and Smith are both healthy so far and enjoying fine training camps. Miller is listed as the third-team middle linebacker, behind Foye Oluokun and Shaq Quarterman, and Smith is third team behind Josh Allen and fellow rookie Yasir Abdullah at one outside linebacker spot.
Miller and Smith both flashed in the first two preseason games. Miller has a sack in each game and four unassisted tackles and Smith had five tackles with one for a loss against Dallas and a quarterback hit and a pass break-up against Detroit.
Miller is also what coaches call a "four core" special teams player. He has 42 snaps on defense in two games and 25 on special teams. Smith has 55 defensive snaps.
Since the two play different positions, they can be 100 percent supportive of each other's efforts.
"We talk every day, make sure we have each other's energy every day," Smith said. "It's making sure that neither one of us gets complacent."
Miller said he learned quickly, with the help of Smith, that playing in the NFL is much different than college in terms of how to approach the day-to-day job duties of practice, meetings and conditioning.
"It's a job," he said. "Everything you do is for the job. The free time you have, you need to be putting it to your job, getting better at it. It's being more mature, more grown up, doing extra work. You've got to be a pro."
Both players had some rehabbing to do during the OTAs and the summer. Miller said watching Smith was an inspiration.
"Jordan had a rough year but it's been good to see him get back to what he can do," Miller said. "He's making plays, I'm making plays. It's a joy to watch."
Smith appreciates the staff's loyalty
Smith has earned his shot but said it would have been easy for Pederson and Caldwell to write him off. After all, he was a third-day draft pick from a previous regime, had only 33 NFL snaps and is coming off a lost season.
It's obvious that his physical skills, patience and work ethic have made an impact.
"I love this coaching staff," Smith said. "I really do feel like coach Pederson believes in me and he knows I'm capable of great things. The fact that I'm still here and still have an opportunity means they see something in me and I appreciate that."
Miller also understands the staff took a chance on him. The pick came under some criticism, mainly due to Miller's injury issues at UF, the fact that he's 6-0 and 232 pounds and the Jaguars drafted two linebackers (Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma) last year).
"I've been playing this position a long time," Miller said. "It takes hard work and playing fast but I'm a competitor."
Baalke dismissed those concerns and said the Jaguars are getting first and foremost a leader and a football player.
"He's a three-time captain ... he's a high intangible guy. He's a baller," Baalke said after the draft.
The dream is getting closer
Caldwell said the team needs pass-rush help and big plays and Smith and Miller are trending in the right direction.
And perhaps it was a sign of faith in Smith that they passed on bidding wars with recent edge rushers who have been available such as Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Houston and Yannick Ngakoue.
“Jordan is working and he has talent, something we can use," Caldwell said. "He's another pass rusher. It's always good to have multiple pass rushers. Ventrell has the knack to make big plays and that’s something we’re looking for.”
There's one more preseason game left, Saturday at EverBank Stadium against Miami (7 p.m., CBS-47). Next week is cutdown day. But at this point, Smith and Miller may finally realize the dream they talked about six years ago in Gainesville: get on the field together and make a little mayhem.