INDIANAPOLIS — Playing in the Southeastern Conference gives an offensive linemen — particularly those who have serious professional aspirations — a good taste of what the National Football League will be like.
Just ask Ryan Kelly, who starred at center at Alabama before being selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the 18th-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Because of his background — both with good coaching and by playing in the toughest conference in college football — Kelly was able to hit the ground running and start all 16 games for the Colts his rookie season.
Braden Smith is currently in the same boat for the Colts. Selected in the second round (37th overall) of this year’s NFL Draft, Smith was a standout guard at Auburn, where he lined up against NFL talent nearly each and every week during his college career.
“You’re always going against NFL caliber type players every week really,” Smith said. “I mean, you’ve got Alabama, Georgia, all the players that have come out of those places. It’s stacked.”
And since arriving in Indianapolis, Smith has already received quite the education as far as what will be expected of him at the next level.
While Smith didn’t quite crack the theoretical “first-team” offensive line during offseason workouts the way Kelly did his rookie year, the situation up front for the Colts is much improved compared to the 2016 season. Indianapolis this offseason signed 32-year-old veteran Matt Slauson to come in and provide leadership and plenty of starting experience, and, for the time being, he seems to be the guy at right guard heading into training camp.
Being inserted with the second-team offensive line at right guard, Smith said his first couple months of work with the Colts was “a lot of learning.”
“I mean, you’re installing a big chunk of the playbook and seeing how fast you can learn it and adapt on the fly,” Smith said. “So basically just that. It’s a lot of stuff coming at you, but it’s how you take coaching and how you absorb it on the run.”
Like fellow rookie guard Quenton Nelson, the Colts are confident Smith will not only be able to absorb the coaching and his new playbook — they see him as a big part of their future along the offensive line.
Smith — who played in 53 games with 41 starts over his four-year career at Auburn — was a two-time All-American in college and, according to Colts general manager Chris Ballard, is “going to be a heck of a player for us long-term.”
“We wanted to make sure we upped the competition level on the O-line and add some depth. And we think we did that without question,” Ballard said. “And pairing him with [Quenton] Nelson gives us two young guards going forward that can really help set the depth of the pocket and really help in our run game.”