Elerson Smith believed.
It didn’t matter he’d graduated from high school with exactly one offer.
It didn’t matter he was going to play at 1-AA Northern Iowa rather than his dream school of Minnesota.
It didn’t matter he was a defensive end who weighed 190 pounds soaking wet.
Smith believed he was bound for the NFL.
“I thought I was good enough. I knew once I got the size, I’d be able to play pretty well. I knew there were opportunities out of Northern Iowa,” says Smith.
“But it was going to take a lot of work.”
That belief fueled one of the most remarkable physical transformations you’ll ever find in an athlete. Smith added nearly 70 pounds to his towering frame and became one of the strongest players in college football.
Today, he ranks as one of the top edge prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft class.
Adrian Peterson inspired Smith to play football.
As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, Smith was transfixed by AP’s transcendent play.
“I remember seeing (Peterson) early on in his career and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s something different about this dude.’ It just sparked a love for it at that point in my life. Watching Adrian Peterson really made me go and beg my parents to play football. So in sixth grade, they let me play football,” says Smith.
Smith wanted to emulate his idol and play running back, yet he was already among the tallest kids in his grade. He first played linebacker and quarterback before he migrated to defensive line at South High School (Minneapolis, Minnesota).
South hadn’t sent a player to the D1 level since the mid-1980s.
But Elerson was a special athlete. He was already well on his way to standing over 6-foot-6. What he lacked in bulk he made up for in raw talent. Smith also took the old-school route of athletic development, lettering in four different sports at South.
“Growing up, I always knew football was my sport and it was what I wanted to play in college. I liked track, but I was going to track because it could help with my top-end speed for football. I liked wrestling, but I thought that wrestling could help me with my leverage and my tackling for football. You just become an overall better athlete (by doing that) and you also don’t get burnt out on one sport,” says Smith.
“You get the opportunity to play all those sports in high school and spend time with your friends, too. Like basketball — I wasn’t the best at basketball, but I was part of a team, I worked to contribute and help that team, and I got to spend time with my friends doing it. So I think (playing multiple sports) was huge for me, both physically and mentally, throughout high school.”
Smith also brought a growth mindset and a positive attitude to his athletic career. He credits his stepfather, Joe Morgan, for helping instill that mentality. Morgan is also the long-time wrestling coach at South.
“One thing he always preaches is to just have fun and get better. So I’ve been trying to do those two things my whole career. I make sure I’m having fun, because if I’m not, it’s pointless,” says Smith.
“Then getting better. I always focused on one thing I wanted to get better at in practice. You know, ‘My first step looked pretty crappy the last game. So today in practice, all I’m focused on is my first step.’ You start stacking those days and you’ll eventually make those weaknesses into your strengths. That’s what worked for me.”
As a junior, Smith totaled 14 sacks while also starring at tight end for the Gallant Tigers. Yet he was barely a blip on the radar of big-time college programs. His recruiting was limited by two key factors. One, he was painfully thin for an athlete purporting to be a defensive end. Two, South won few games and competed in a conference that was far from a recruiting hotbed.
“I had ridiculous production numbers, but it was in a smaller inner-city football conference. So a lot of teams doubted those numbers,” says Smith.
“We weren’t a football factory school. Colleges coaches weren’t stopping there to see what we were doing. So getting my name out there was more about college camps … (I had to) get into camps and do it against guys who were held up with an expectation that they were gonna be future college players.”
Smith attended a camp at the University of Northern Iowa prior to his senior year.
While UNI is a 1-AA program, they’ve sent a surprising number of players to the pros — 21 different Panthers have gone on to play at least three years in the NFL to date. The program also has a reputation for uncovering overlooked players and helping them transform their bodies to unlock their true potential. In Smith, they saw their next potential project.
Smith led the state of Minnesota in sacks his senior season, but the hometown Golden Gophers never showed much interest. In fact, UNI was the only school willing to take a shot on him. The Panthers wound up as his lone offer.
Smith journeyed to Cedar Falls, Iowa with a scrawny frame and a chip on his shoulder. Since he desperately needed to gain strength and mass, a redshirt year was a given.
Jed Smith, UNI’s strength and conditioning coach, recalls Smith’s initial physique.
“My initial impression was I laughed. I looked at Elerson, and he’s a nice kid, but oh my goodness. I thought, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do here.’ He would’ve been small for a basketball player we were recruiting and this was a D-lineman,” Jed says.
“There were times throughout that first year where Elerson would double-day. He’d come in during the AM and come back during the PM. It was sometimes eight or nine lifts a week. He put in the time in the weight room … He’s a hard worker and just a really good human being.”
Elerson’s potential was obvious despite his gangly physique. For an athlete of his stature, he was an exceptionally smooth mover, beating skill players in agility and conditioning drills from day one. Smith also added pounds to his max power clean in rapid fashion, indicating special fast-twitch ability.
He says the training “shocked” his body. Smith’s meal plan required him to devour five meals a day. When he found himself in a calorie-crunch, he’d down peanut butter & jellies to ensure his body remained in an anabolic state.
His strength numbers ballooned as slabs of muscle gradually filled in his frame. Yet Smith still had a ways to go with his technique and football IQ.
UNI defensive line coach Bryce Paup recalls Smith having a “deer in the headlights” look as a redshirt freshman.
When Smith wasn’t physically pushing himself to the limit in practices and workouts, he was attempting to master the complexities of the game while also handling a full academic course load.
Yet he persevered.
Smith credits his late biological father, Robert, for teaching him the right way to power through adversity.
“My dad was paralyzed for the last three years of his life. He had an aneurysm that paralyzed him from the neck down. I think the way he handled it is what really inspired me. I never saw him disrespect any nursing staff or doctors or anything like that. For someone in his position to have everything stripped away and still have high character and be the man that he was, that was extremely inspiring,” says Smith.
“He was fighting through a lot more than anything I’ve had to go through. In times of struggle on the football field, it puts things in perspective. Maybe I’m tired because it’s my eighth gasser, but my dad had to fight to try to move again. It always puts things in perspective and makes things easier than they are both on the football field and throughout life.”
By 2018, Smith had gained roughly 50 pounds without losing a step. He was ready to see game action.
Deployed mostly as a third-down specialist, Smith totaled 10 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble that season. Versus Iowa, he got the chance to test himself against Tristan Wirfs, the Hawkeyes’ ultra-athletic, 320-pound offensive tackle. Wirfs would later be drafted 13th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Smith noted Wirfs’ immense talent and used it as motivation for improvement. Lucky for him, he had a comparable talent lined up across from him every day in practice.
Spencer Brown arrived at UNI alongside Smith.
Both received zero FBS offers and had to gain significant amounts of mass before they received meaningful playing time. While Brown had been a tight end in high school, UNI decided to mold him into an offensive tackle.
Day after day, Smith and Brown fought it out on the practice field. The fact their physical development almost perfectly mirrored one another made them ideal sparring partners.
“Spencer’s a freak athlete. He’s 6-foot-8 but he’s super athletic. He can bend and play with great leverage at the point of attack,” says Smith.
“We’ve been going at it since he was a 240-pound tight end and I was a 200-pound defensive end. That was huge for us because we’re both so competitive. There was never a day we let up on each other. I remember he came back for camp before (our) redshirt junior year and he felt twice as strong as he did the camp before. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to have to check myself,’ because he was beating my a— a little bit. (Spencer) was big for me — he motivated me to get better.”
Brown, who Smith calls an “awesome dude,” is now projected as a potential first-round draft pick. His Relative Athletic Score (a composite score of a prospect’s size and athleticism) is the highest of any offensive tackle in NFL history.
In high school, Smith relied almost entirely on raw athleticism to make plays.
Against better competition, he quickly realized that approach led to limited success. Smith looked to Paup, a UNI alumni who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1995 and racked up 75 career sacks as a pro, to help him hone his craft.
“Coach Paup did a great job spending extra time with me and making sure he gave me all the help I needed — whether it was my first step, (defending) the run, or adding new moves to my pass rush arsenal. But I think the biggest one was understanding the film room and the schematics behind the game,” says Smith.
“I probably took my biggest step when I locked in on that and really made a full-hearted effort to try and learn the game in and out. I was lucky enough to have a coach like Coach Paup who he knew everything.”
Smith had a monster season in 2019.
UNI’s first game pitted them against Iowa State. The Cyclones entered the intrastate showdown ranked the 21st-best team in the FBS.
Smith was a one-man wrecking crew, totaling 5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a QB hit, and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown. The Panthers took the Cyclones to the brink before falling in triple overtime.
The performance only strengthened Smith’s conviction that he could play at the highest level.
Later that year, Smith matched up against North Dakota State and Dillon Radunz, an offensive tackle who’s now receiving first-round buzz. Smith finished the game with five tackles, a sack, a QB hit and a pass deflection.
His season totals were staggering — 63 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 5 deflected passes. That was good enough to earn Smith AP FCS All-America honors.
By that point, Smith weighed roughly 255 pounds and measured in taller than 6-foot-6. His bench and squat numbers had nearly doubled over the previous four years. All the while, he’d maintained his incredible speed and flexibility.
With another season of eligibility left to boost his draft stock, the sky was the limit.
Then Covid-19 happened.
Smith’s first priority? Find a gym.
“I was on campus so I was lucky enough to have a weight room set up across the street from me in another football player’s house. Every day I was getting up and lifting and doing something,” says Smith.
Then a different tragedy hit close to home.
On May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by police at the corner of E. 38th and Chicago Avenue in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Smith was outraged. The fact the incident occurred at an intersection he’d driven through hundreds of times made it all too real. Smith returned home to participate in peaceful protests and do whatever he could to help.
“That happened five minutes from my house where I grew up. So to have something like that happen right in your community hits home pretty hard,” Smith says.
“(I’d like to use my NFL platform) to bring awareness to that and help the community in any way I can, because I think the community of Minneapolis really needs it.”
In July, Phil Steele named Smith the FCS Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
A month later, word came down the Missouri Valley Conference had cancelled their 2020 football season.
Smith was devastated. He briefly explored transferring to a different school so he could play his redshirt senior season and did receive an offer to join an SEC team.
However, NCAA transfer rules at the time would’ve still required he sit out a year before being eligible to play.
Smith ultimately chose to set his sights on the 2021 NFL Draft. He hired an agent and returned to Minneapolis to start preparing.
This photo from UNI Strength & Conditioning shows Smith’s incredible transformation
There, he linked up with Roy Palmer of In-Tension Training. Since max strength was no longer a weakness for Smith (he could squat nearly 600 pounds by that point) their approach focused on making him a more complete athlete.
“Elerson was already very strong when we first started training together,” says Palmer.
“We wanted to improve his ability to produce force rapidly in order to maximize transfer to the football field. In addition, we really trained everything needed to improve his performance, help him move well, and reduce his risk of injury … (He’s) an absolutely stellar athlete and one of the most kind, humble people I know.”
Smith arrived at the 2021 Senior Bowl still somewhat of an unknown. He hadn’t played a 2020 season and had only two years of college production — both of which came at the FCS level.
Smith quieted such concerns when the pads began popping. The fact four other players from the Missouri Valley Conference were also in attendance helped calm his nerves.
“It’s a legit conference. Maybe it’s dudes who weren’t 240 and 6-foot-5 coming out of high school — (but) it’s a lot of guys like me who just took longer to progress. That doesn’t mean I’m any worse than any of these other (prospects) because they were bigger than me at 17,” says Smith.
“I think it showed at the Senior Bowl. We had five dudes there and we all did pretty well. That actually helped me a lot (that week) because a few plays in, I was like, ’These guys aren’t any better than the guys I faced every week.’”
Smith followed up his phenomenal Senior Bowl with an awesome Pro Day. Highlights included a mind-boggling 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 1.60 10-yard split and 26 reps on the bench press.
Some analysts believe Smith will need to add another 10-20 pounds of mass before he can become an every-down player at the next level. Yet his physique and skillset have also drawn comparisons to Jason Taylor, the slender six-time Pro Bowl selection who currently ranks seventh on the NFL’s all-time sack list.
Wherever Smith lands, he plans to use the same approach that helped him go from an obscure high school recruit to a likely NFL Draft selection.
“I’m just going to contribute wherever they need me. I think that’s what I’m excited to do. I understand it’s a team game and everyone has roles, so whether my role is just a third-down specialist right away or special teams, I’m going to compete and do my best to exceed (expectations) in my role,” says Smith.
“I’m going to do that by working hard and getting after it every day.”
Photo Credit: AP Newsroom, Minneapolis South High School, UNI Athletics