The official status says that Elerson Smith opted out of his final season at Northern Iowa, but really it was taken from him.
The edge rusher was coming off a breakout performance in 2019 when he recorded 14 sacks in his first year as a starter and hoping to build on it to make NFL scouts notice. Then the pandemic came. Pretty soon all of FCS, the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, was postponed until the spring. Smith entered the transfer portal hoping to jump on with an FBS program for the fall, but those seasons were starting to get postponed, too.
"At that point everything was so up in the air," Smith said "I was like ‘You know what? I’m just going to declare (for the draft), start training for the pro day and the Senior Bowl.’ "
Disappointing as it was – "Your senior season is what you look forward to for all four years really," Smith said – the tactic worked for him. The Giants selected Smith, an outside linebacker, in the fourth round of the NFL draft on Saturday. He became the second edge-rusher taken by the team with a need at the position following the second-round selection of Azeez Ojulari from Georgia.
The Giants wrapped up their draft with two picks in the sixth round: Running back and special teams contributor Gary Brightwell from Arizona with the 196th overall selection and cornerback Rodarius Williams from Oklahoma State at 201.
If Smith suits up for the Giants this fall it will be his first meaningful game action in nearly two years. He hasn’t played since December 2019. The Giants knew there would players in similar circumstances in this draft. Giants director of college scouting Chris Pettit said last week: "You’ve got to do a lot of projecting."
That’s what Smith’s whole career has been about. He was a barely-recruited 190-pound prospect from Minneapolis who wound up at Northern Iowa. He red-shirted and spent two years as a reserve player while he added weight.
"It’s been a process," he said. "It was like working in the dark, making sure I was getting the most out of every day."
He played at around 235 pounds in that 2019 breakout season. He showed up at the Senior Bowl in January at 252.
"I wanted to show teams I could play with the new weight and show them I was working hard on my body and my game, that I’m able to contribute to an NFL team at this point," Smith said of the all-star game. "That was an important week just because I didn’t have the film like everyone else had from the 2020 season."
He flashed enough to impress the Giants, at least.
We got to see him on the same playing field with guys from Power Five schools and the higher levels and he fit right in," Pettit said. "He competed his butt off. Athletically and physically he looked the part. You got to compare apples to apples there… There is big upside there."
Smith is still dealing with the disappointment of missing his final campaign at Northern Iowa.
"We really had a chance to make a run for it this year," he said. "I just tried to go with the flow and understand that it is what it was and I had no control over the season being cancelled."
But now he’s looking forward to his next game once again. His first in the NFL.
"I just know the New York Giants are a great historic organization," he said. "I’m excited to be able to contribute to what they have."