KNOXVILLE - The offseason surgeries on both of his feet were a concern for his coach, but Jacques Smith thinks they made him faster and better in his quest to be a full-time defensive end for the University of Tennessee.
Coming off a solid spring practice with a promising future ahead of him, the former Ooltewah star decided to have precautionary surgery on his left foot just weeks after a procedure to fix a broken bone in his right foot. The dual operations may have saved him from possible future disaster.
"I think I'm actually a little bit quicker," Smith said after the Volunteers' first practice of preseason camp Tuesday. "The ligaments in my ankles and things, I've strengthened them a lot more than before. I don't know, I feel a half-step faster.
"It was [tough], but for me, I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in the spring. I just didn't get the bonus of playing in the [Orange and White] game. I worked hard all throughout the summer, and I stayed in shape and I didn't miss a thing."
UT coach Derek Dooley feared the surgeries might sap some of the pass-rush specialist's explosiveness.
"Any time you're doing surgery on feet, you're concerned," Dooley said. "I hope it holds up. He looked good out there; he looked fresh. It looks like it was a pretty good decision to go in there and do both feet. I hope it stays that way."
The 6-foot-2, 252-pound sophomore claimed a first-team spot at one end position with his performance in the spring drills, but during a practice in the last week he heard a pop in his right foot.
After that was corrected, nagging pain in his left foot forced Smith to go to UT's training staff for an X-ray, which found a minor stress fracture. At the advice of his trainer and UT's team surgeon, Smith had the precautionary measure done in late May and now has screws in both of his feet.
"They said it would be a good thing for me and my career," Smith said. "It was pretty much a simple decision. Any athlete, if they have a chance to fix something that they know has gone wrong in their bodies, I think everyone would fix it. I've never been hurt in my career. That was a first for me."
The surgeries put Smith in protective boots and on crutches, but they didn't slow his offseason workout program. He also incorporated boxing into his workouts two days per week with the goal of aiding his conditioning and hand speed.
"I know guys in the NFL do a lot of hands -- jujitsu, stuff like that -- to incorporate into their pass rush, so why not get my hands faster," Smith said. "I did everything that the team did except conditioning, and I was on the bike every day going just as hard as I could while they worked out and ran and did their agilities. I tried to push myself as hard as I could.
"During the course of the summer, we slowly progressed. After my surgeries we just slowly took it a week at a time. Every little week we added something new to my regimen and I got better, so I'm here now full-go and ready for the season."
Now he wants to build on his progress and become a dependable player on a UT front seven that's returning just one player, lineman Malik Jackson. Smith wants to be an every-down player.
"We've got to make sure he's healthy. That's number one," Dooley said. "I think he's got the ability to be an elite pass-rusher that can really impact a game. Whether he'll be able to do that or not, time will tell. Then if you are an elite pass-rusher, does he have the physical stature to hold up in the run game? We're going to have to determine that.
"Jacques is another guy who can disrupt a game. We've got to use him the right way without killing him."
Smith, who said he's been 100 percent physically for a month, considers the timing of the discovered injury fortunate.
"Some guys, they don't even realize they have certain injuries like this," he said. "I had it for quite a while. It was agitating me. I didn't know what it was. I didn't report it to the trainer. I just thought it was my cleats. Turns out, X-rays showed a stress fracture in my foot. It's kind of a blessing to know that happened, and it happened in my other foot as well in an early stage, to where we could fix it.
"It's a blessing for me to be standing here right now."