When the San Francisco 49ers drafted Aldon Smith out of Missouri with the seventh overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, they marveled at his wingspan.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pounder is not only strong and fast, but his outstretched arms – from finger tip to finger tip – measure 83 7/8 inches. Niners GM Trent Baalke referred to Smith’s long arms as “levers” that help him shed blockers and get his hands on opposing quarterbacks.
As a rookie, Smith proved Baalke right, collecting 14 sacks as mostly a third-down pass-rushing specialist.
Now, as Smith prepares for the first exhibition game of his second pro season Friday night against Minnesota, Smith believes even better numbers are within his long reach in 2012 as he transitions to a full-time outside linebacker.
“I don’t have a number set (for sacks), but I want to improve on what I did last year,” Smith told Taylor Price of 49ers.com. With his rookie year behind him and an offseason and training camp of learning his new position, Smith says he’s ready to be better than he was in 2011.
“I got a season under my belt,” he told Price. “I’ve learned a lot. A lot is different than it was last year. Going into this game (Friday) I’m more confident and the butterflies aren’t there as much.”
At the start of last season, Smith was almost a secret weapon who could be unleashed on passing downs. This season, as he takes over the outside linebacker spot held by Parys Haralson in 2011, Smith is aware that offenses will have their eyes on him. Late last year, Smith says opposing teams often began to use tight ends and running backs to help stop him, and he knows the same will be true this season.
“I’m not flying under the radar,” he says. “They’ve seen what happened last year. So whether that causes double-teams, chips or whatever, I’m preparing for it.”
This season, though, Smith will have more responsibilities. As a rookie, he essentially was free to go after the quarterback. This season, he’ll also have pass coverage duty.
Fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks says Smith’s role will be much more complex than it was.
“The biggest thing for him is to know where he’s going, whether he’s rushing the passer or dropping back,” Brooks told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
The fact Smith is intent on putting up bigger numbers in 2012 – even if he won’t publicly say what they are – is probably a cause for relief among 49ers fans who read about the player’s offseason problems (an arrest for DUI and an incident in which Smith was stabbed at his own house party) and worried that perhaps he wouldn’t be focused and motivated to prove himself again in his second season.
By all accounts, Smith is revved and ready. And, he may see even more action Friday night – and in the preseason games as a whole – as he learns his new position.
“That’s possible,” Fangio told reporters. “He hadn’t played much outside linebacker, so he might get a few more snaps there. But we haven’t really determined it yet.”