Last week’s Ohio State pro day was a family affair for Malik and Tyreke Smith.
Both of them were among the 2022 draft hopefuls working out in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams during Ohio State’s annual draft prospect showcase at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. The two brothers’ journeys to this point, however, have been very different from one another.
Tyreke Smith is a projected middle-round pick in this year’s NFL draft after playing defensive end at Ohio State for the past four years. While he wasn’t quite as productive as he would have liked to have been as a Buckeye, and still believes his best football is in front of him, he has plenty of film to show NFL scouts after playing more than 1,100 defensive snaps across 42 games with 17 starts in his Ohio State career.
Malik Smith, on the other hand, hasn’t played in a football game since he played Pop Warner as a kid.
Basketball was the Smith brothers’ first love, and while Tyreke ultimately started playing football as a junior at Cleveland Heights High School – and quickly became one of the top defensive end prospects in the recruiting class of 2018 – Malik chose to focus solely on basketball.
Malik received numerous Division I scholarship offers in basketball and signed with UNC Asheville, but played only one year at UNC Asheville before transferring to Bryant University. He later transferred to Fisk University, an NAIA school, but did not end up playing in any games at either Bryant or Fisk.
The elder Smith, who is two years older than Tyreke, said mental health issues kept him from having the college basketball career he envisioned. But he believes he’s grown from the journey he’s gone through over the past six years.
“My basketball career was derailed due to mental health that I was disregarding at first and early in my career, not kind of addressing it properly,” Malik Smith said after last Wednesday’s pro day. “And just from that point to now, I feel like everything that I went through with that, all the lessons that I've learned, all prepared me for this moment now.”
Now, even though he never played football in college or high school, Malik is trying to convince NFL scouts that he has what it takes to play professional football as a tight end.
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds – a few inches taller and about 10 pounds bigger than his brother – Malik looks the part of an NFL player physically, and despite his lack of experience, he didn’t look out of place as he ran routes and caught passes from Cardale Jones last Wednesday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
That said, he acknowledges he still has a lot to learn about how to play the tight end position.
“Even (at pro day), like a few of the drills is my second and third time ever doing it,” Malik said. “Learning this game has been critical. It's been hard. But it's been a good process, though. And I'm surrounded by people who want to see me win, who want to help like my brother.”
Malik has been training with Tyreke ever since Tyreke’s Ohio State career ended in January, and Malik has also been training with former Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who he says has been teaching him the ins and outs of the tight end position.
“Just getting that knowledge from him has been amazing,” Malik said. “Just trying to get better every day, whether it's route running, whether it's watching film, understanding schemes, concepts, whatever it may be.”
While Malik’s path to the NFL would certainly be unconventional, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. There have been several examples over the past couple of decades of college basketball players making it in the NFL as tight ends even though they didn’t play football in college – most notably, Antonio Gates, who went on to become one of the best tight ends in NFL history with the Chargers even though he only played basketball in college.
Malik said he has been inspired by the stories of Gates and other basketball players-turned-NFL tight ends, and he hopes an NFL team will be inspired by their stories too and take a chance on his raw potential.
“I'm willing to learn and do anything,” Malik said. “I know that I can be a tight end in the NFL. It's just about learning the game of football now, and just being developed.”
Tyreke believes his brother’s work ethic will give him a chance to make it in professional football.
“He's a hard-ass worker, man,” Tyreke said. “He's a sponge, willing to learn. The sky’s the limit for him. He just started training for this. And you can already see the transition he’s had and how good he's transitioning. So just the more work he puts in, the better he's gonna get. I feel like he can be a great tight end.”
Regardless of what happens next, participating in pro day together on Wednesday will be a memory both of them can cherish. Tyreke said it brought him back to playing in the backyard with his older brother when they were kids.
“I feel like we’re back in the old days,” Tyreke said. “It's just a real blessing, just to see him out here competing.”
Malik said it was a dream come true just to participate in Ohio State’s pro day, and he’s grateful to Ryan Day, Mickey Marotti and the rest of Ohio State’s staff for giving him the chance to do so.
“Before we started, I just went over to the Block O, and I just kind of sat there and just took the moment in,” Malik said. “I've been an Ohio State fan my whole life. Football, basketball, all sports. Been just a huge O-State fan and I always knew I was gonna go to O-State growing up. Didn’t think I was gonna be playing football on it. But coming out here and just being here, the opportunity that Coach Day gave me and Coach Mick, being here with Tyreke, I mean, it's the opportunity that you gotta take in.”