Tim Brewster first encountered Hayden Smith when the Australian was playing college basketball for Metropolitan State, a Division II program in Denver.
Brewster, who is credited with helping Antonio Gates make the transition from the hardwood to the gridiron, was coaching tight ends for the Broncos at the time. In Denver, Brewster had another tight end conversion product in Wesley Dukes, a player whose NFL career was cut short following a knee injury. So, he knows a little something about these conversion projects.
According to Brewster, Smith is ready to make the move to the NFL. His story has been detailed here before. Smith went from playing basketball to becoming a rugby star. He is a front liner for the Saracens in the U.K. The 26-year-old is being seriously pursued by four NFL teams now, a process that began in January after the Senior Bowl. Agent Jack Bechta said he hopes to have a deal in place soon even as more teams are curious about seeing Smith.
Brewster spent a week training Smith in San Diego earlier this month before he worked out for the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. Previously, Smith has met with the New York Jets twice and he’s also had a workout for the New Orleans Saints. The Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks have expressed interest in bringing Smith in but right now he has a tight schedule with his rugby commitments.
“The first thing I saw was a kid 6-6, 265 pounds,” Brewster said. “He’s no longer 6-6, 220. I was really amazed at a couple of things. First, his ability to assimilate all the information I was throwing at him. He gets it. Football makes sense to the kid. Second, his work ethic off the charts. He’s a way above average athlete for the position. I think the kid has an outstanding future in the National Football League.”
Brewster was with the Chargers when they brought Gates in as an undrafted free agent from Kent State in 2003. Eight Pro Bowl appearances later, he looks like a future Hall of Famer. No one is comparing Smith to Gates -- and no one should -- but Brewster likes what he sees in the Aussie.
“Different kind of guy,” Brewster said. “Gates is 6-2, 260 pounds. Just a different kind of guy. The thing about Hayden is he is going to be a true, three-down player in the National Football League. The tight end position now has become so down and distance specific. Your first and second down tight ends, your third down tight end and this kid at 6-6, 265 pounds, he’s going to do a great job blocking the line of scrimmage on run down situations and then he’s going to also have the ability to stretch the field and do some things in the passing game that are really unique. And he has outstanding hands.”
Brewster said the first thing he does when working with players new to the game is take it to Step 1. He coaches the stance, the first step, and introduces the smallest details.
“You’ve got to take nothing for granted,” Brewster said. “The kid knows nothing. That is the way you coach him. You totally break it down to the basics and that’s what we did. We broke everything down to the most basic elements of tight end play. That’s how you move forward.”
Jimmy Graham is the latest sensation to make the move from basketball to football. He’s a dynamic performer for the Saints. Brewster says more basketball-to-football stories are developing because those are the perfect athletes for the tight end position.
“The best tight ends, body type, athletic ability, the whole thing are power forwards in basketball,” he said. “That’s what you want playing tight end. For this position you have to think outside the box, you have to think basketball, alternative sports. You can’t be afraid to experiment. They’re not all going to work. Every one of them is not going to be Antonio Gates. But when you’ve got a guy that has unique athletic ability and just because he hasn’t played football doesn’t mean he can’t. As a coach, I’ve got to go earn my money. A lot of coaches shy away from guys that haven’t played the game because it is an exhausting process. To me, that’s the exciting part. Taking a piece of clay like that, and I am going to tell you Hayden Smith is one beautiful piece of clay, just mold them into what you want him to be.”
Coaches are now seeking out Brewster’s opinion on Smith. He’s spoken to Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who he worked under in Denver. He’s also talked to Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who coached Brewster when he played in college at Illinois. He’s also talked to Eagles coach Andy Reid.
Now, it’s about Smith finding a landing spot. With off-field endorsements and benefits, Smith is earning roughly $300,000 U.S. playing rugby each season. He’s willing to leave that behind and make the leap with the hope of starting a football career.
“I’m hoping to get a deal done this week,” Bechta said.
In full disclosure, Bechta is a founding partner of the National Football Post