A PROFESSIONAL APPROACH

Read about wide receiver Taj Smith, and how he personified the "Next Man Up" approach in the 2010 AFC South Championship season.

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Wide Receiver Taj Smith Emerged as Key Special Teams Player in 2010
INDIANAPOLIS – For most of the season, Taj Smith knew it was a possibility.

It didn't even matter that he wasn't actually with the Colts.

Smith, a first-year veteran wide receiver, knew the only way to approach the 2010 season – and his NFL career, for that matter – was to be ready to contribute if needed, whenever needed. And he knew there was a chance he would indeed be needed – sooner not later.

Smith had been around the Colts enough to know that.

And he had been told as much, too.

So, when Smith – who originally signed with the Colts as a free agent in early 2009 – received a phone call in late November, he said it didn't surprise him to be playing a significant role days later.

It is, after all, the Colts' way.

"You just have to know that once you get on the field, you have to be professional," Smith said near the end of the 2010 season, a season in which the Colts won a seventh AFC South title in eight seasons and a season on which Colts.com will continue looking back in the coming weeks.

Late in the 2010 season, Smith did just that.

Smith, who played collegiately at Syracuse University, spent the 2009 season on the Colts' practice squad after signing with the Green Bay Packers as a collegiate free agent shortly after the April 2009 NFL Draft.

He spent 2010 training camp with the Colts as well, and was waived by the team September 4. Smith said team officials told him at the time there was a good chance he could return, and Smith knew from his time around the Colts, if that were the case, there was a good chance he could contribute.

"In my position, everybody was getting hurt," Smith said. "I knew there might be a chance I'd be back."

Smith said that's how it is around the Colts, where the motto "Next Man Up" often is discussed, and where backups and little-known players often make critical contributions.

That was the case this season, when more than a dozen players finished the season on injured reserve. Those players included tight end Dallas Clark and wide receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez, as well as cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden.

Linebacker Clint Session and running back Joseph Addai also missed at least half the season, and with such players out of the lineup, reserves played key roles en route to the team's NFL record-tying ninth consecutive post-season appearance.

Smith was very much one of those players. He re-signed in November, and while playing the final five regular-season games, emerged as one of the Colts' top special teams players.

He made an immediate impact upon joining the Colts, re-signing on Tuesday, November 30, and playing against Dallas that Sunday. He not only played, he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown that gave the Colts a second-half lead.

The Colts hadn't blocked a punt since 2007, and the touchdown was their first on a punt block since 1989.

"That's the crazy thing about the league," Smith said. "That's when you know you have to be ready. For me, I just stayed at it. I was going to keep working out until the time comes, and it came.

"I made the best of my opunity."

In so doing, Colts coaches and personnel officials said he developed into a player who could be critical to the special teams moving forward.

"He made great strides," Colts President Bill Polian said of Smith shortly after the season. "I'm hopeful that he will continue to develop. He's a terrific guy. He is a good player. He has great speed. We need to find a better, bigger role for him on special teams.

"He's a valuable contributor. We look forward to having him back."

Smith said having been with the Colts for the 2009 season, and this past off-season, helped the transition upon his return.

"I'm familiar with the offense, and the special teams," Smith said. "I had three months where I guess you could say I was sitting around home just waiting for a niche – anywhere. I was just happy I got it back with the Colts."

Smith said he knows it will take work to continue to make an impact, and he said such an approach is how he not only made it in the NFL, but how he arrived there. He originally played basketball in high school, not playing football until his senior year and before attending Syracuse, he spent two seasons at Bakersfield Community College.

He set school records at Bakersfield for single-season receptions (53) and career receptions (95), then spent two seasons at Syracuse, where he caught 56 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns.

And while it took a year to work his way onto an active NFL roster, he said he focused on that work during that time by focusing on a credo that to the Colts in 2010, was more than just a motto.

"Coach preached it all year, all season – preseason – that you never know when you're going to get a shot," Smith said. "But it's always 'Next Man Up.'

"You just try to stay in shape, and keep working out. It's going to be a case where when you get that call, you're ready. For me, it was a blessing. I knew I had a chance to come in right away and contribute on special teams.

"I took that and turned it into a positive."

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