The Redskins Rookie Review series is presented by Medliminal, the Official Health and Wellness Partner of the Washington Redskins.
Long before Smith-Williams got a call from Rivera on Day 3 of the 2020 NFL Draft, he was a kid growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. And like many from his home state, he grew up as a fan of the Carolina Panthers, who were coached for nine seasons by Rivera. Smith-Williams watched as Rivera led the team to four playoff appearances, three straight NFC South division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
Now they're both with the Redskins, and Smith-Williams has the chance to be a part of Rivera's rebuilding process in Washington.
"My head coach [at N.C. State] knows him and people around the area know him," Smith-Williams told Voice of the Redskins Larry Michael. "They speak very highly of him as a man of high character, high integrity. So, obviously I'm very excited to go to work for a person like that."
There was plenty of hype surrounding Smith-Williams entering his senior year with the Wolfpack. After putting on 60 pounds and cycling through three different positions, he finished his redshirt junior year as a full-time starter with 40 tackles, six sacks, three pass breakups and four quarterback hurries.
Smith-Williams entered his senior year as one of PFF's Top 10 breakout candidates for the 2019 season, but a leg injury prohibited him from starting the entire season, limiting him to just 20 tackles and a sack in six games. He had to wait until the seventh round, but Rivera and vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith decided to draft him with the 229th overall pick because of his versatility.
"[He] has got enough stout...that not only could he be an outside edge guy, but he can come down every now and then and probably play as a three technique for you," Rivera said following the conclusion of the NFL Draft.
Smith-Williams, who views himself as a traditional 4-3 defensive end, said he loves to "set the edge, get up the field and attack people." Under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who likes to have his edge rusher spend more time rushing the pass, he will have the opportunity to do that.
"I'm a guy used to getting up the field, using my speed on tackles, speed-to-power hand usage, stuff like that," Smith-Williams told local media after he was drafted. "Just giving me a chance to attack the edge, be head-up, taking on a lot more double teams to kind of beat you up a little bit more."
Like the rest of the Redskins' rookies, Smith-Williams is not able to physically meet his new teammates yet because of the restrictions instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for him, he is able to work out at his local high school with his trainer, who has been with Smith-Williams for a large portion of his career.
So, in addition to practicing safe social distancing and keeping himself healthy, his primary focus is being in shape for whenever training camp begins.
"I just look forward to competing. It's going to be a lot of fun. I know there are a lot of talented guys, a lot of great athletes, so it's exciting to throw my name in that mix."
Smith-Williams was brimming with excitement whenever he finally received a call from the head coach he had watched for years. Day 3 is a long one, he said, and watching the television hoping for his name to flash on the screen was a draining experience.
All that mental exhaustion vanished when he picked up his phone, and now the only emotion that drives him is determination to be a part of Rivera's new culture.
Smith-Williams thinks there might have been a chance for him to get drafted with a higher pick, but none of that matters to him now. What's most important to him is that he gets a chance to continue playing the sport that he has loved his entire life.
"Where you started never mattered, it's where you finish," he said. "And now I'm ready to get to work."