The bedtime stories Kyle Smith would hear as a little boy were quite a bit different than those of other kids.
The son of former Buffalo Bills scout and personnel director A.J. Smith, Kyle would drift off to breakdowns of Buffalo’s upcoming opponents.
“A lot of kids would get Berenstain Bears books read to them at night, and he’d have his Miami Dolphins AFC East advance reports out,” Kyle Smith said. “I was actually into them, more than I probably should have been.”
It was obvious then that a life in football was Smith’s calling. That’s come to fruition, currently as the Washington Redskins’ director of college scouting.
Like scouting staffs around the league, Smith and the Redskins have been evaluating players for months. The next phase begins this week with practice sessions and interviews at the East-West Shrine Game and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Smith’s journey to his position started with a standout playing career at St. Francis High School and Youngstown State University as a wide receiver. From there, he kicked around some NFL and CFL training camps before transitioning from the playing field to the film room.
With some help from his dad, Smith landed a role as an intern with the Redskins in 2010. Washington President Bruce Allen has known A.J. Smith for years, so that served as the foot in the door that Kyle needed. When one of the team’s area scouts retired the following year, Kyle Smith was hired full time.
“Scott Campbell, our director of college scouting at the time, put me in there,” Kyle Smith said. “I’m thankful to him for that. He kind of threw me in there. Was I ready? Probably not. Every move up that you make, you’re probably not truly ready for, but you figure it out through hard work, by doing the best job that you can.”
Smith covered the Southwest in 2011, then changed to the Southeast in 2012, an area he was responsible for until receiving the promotion to director of college scouting before the 2017 season.
“It’s been a grind, but it’s awesome,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”
A football family
A.J. Smith is best known in NFL circles for his work as the San Diego Chargers’ general manager. That came after a successful 14-year run with the Bills, which started as a scout and ended with Smith serving as the team’s director of pro personnel.
Those late-night scouting and film sessions taught Kyle the scouting lingo.
“That’s where I got a lot of the verbiage from,” he said. “Growing up, hearing the way he described certain players, learning how to read those reports, that helped me do what I’m doing today.”
A.J. Smith became the Chargers’ general manager after his longtime friend and co-worker, former Bills GM John Butler, died of cancer in 2003. Under Smith’s leadership, the Chargers went 97-65 from 2003-12, a run that included four consecutive AFC West championships and five playoff appearances.
“This is my ninth year now, and the longer I’ve been in it, you go to the combine, you go to the Senior Bowl, and you meet all these other scouts – guys that have been on the road with him and guys that have followed his career – and the things that they say about him, the more respect I have for him,” Kyle said. “Obviously, he’s my dad, I’m going to have respect for him, and I’m biased when I think of him as a GM and some of the success he had, but when you hear it from guys on other teams that I don’t know, that he might not know, but they say how much they respected the teams he had built in San Diego all those years.
“He’s the best talent evaluator I’ve ever been around.”
A.J. Smith worked for two seasons as a consultant for the Redskins in 2013-14, but is now retired and living in Del Mar, Calif. Well, somewhat “retired.”
“He can’t get rid of it,” Kyle Smith said. “He’s constantly asking me about players. … Keenan Cole, the wide receiver for Jacksonville who went to Kentucky Wesleyan, that’s the college my dad went to. Three years ago, he was at a game, and he was telling me about that kid. I’m like, ‘Dad, that’s not even my area.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. The guy can play. Make sure you guys are on him.’ So he can’t shut it off. He can’t get rid of it.”
From Athol Springs to NFL
Smith is part of a remarkable pipeline from St. Francis High School to the NFL that also includes Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell, Jaguars Director of Player Personnel Chris Polian, Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
“There’s some schools that have a ‘tree’ to them, but this is pretty unique,” Smith said. “You’re talking about 32 GM jobs in the NFL, and two of them have them from our high school. It’s pretty cool, man.
“I talked to Brian Daboll at the Senior Bowl last year and congratulated him for going back to Buffalo. David Caldwell, I’ve had a lot of conversations with at the Senior Bowl and all-star games and stuff. I’ve got tremendous respect for all those guys.”
Smith almost didn’t go to St. Francis. He attended Frontier in middle school, and were it not for a falling out with the modified coach, probably would have continued there in high school. Instead, he ended up at St. Francis.
“I’ve said before from a football career standpoint, it’s the best decision that I ever made,” Smith said. “The way that program is set up with Jerry Smith, Steve Otremba and back then John Scibetta, it made me so ready to play college football. Just college in general. The academics at St. Francis were harder than in college. In college, you just show up and you get a C.”
Smith, who played football all four years for the Red Raiders, was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2012. He remains the program’s leader in career receiving yards (1,904), career receptions (132) and single-season catches (56). A team captain as a junior and senior and an All-Western New York selection his final year, Smith also played two seasons of basketball and ran track and field for three years, winning an All-Catholic title as part of the 4X400 relay team.
“Steve Otremba is the best wide receiver coach that I’ve ever had, and I played until I was 25,” Smith said. “He taught me how to run every route three different ways. All the things I learned that are the foundation of being a good wide receiver, I learned at St. Francis. If I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have gone to Youngstown State on a full scholarship and then from there had the opportunity to play after college for a few years.”
Otremba was taken aback upon hearing Smith’s high praise.
“It’s kind of humbling for anybody to say that you’re the best at anything,” he said. “I’ve been real fortunate where I’m at to be able to work with a lot of really great and talented guys, and Kyle’s right at the top of that list.”
At Youngstown State, Smith set a program record with at least one catch in 30 consecutive games. He finished ninth in school history with 101 career receptions, 11th with 1,536 receiving yards and third in career punt returns (56) and punt-return yards (377). He was selected as the Penguins’ most outstanding offensive player as a junior in 2004 and team MVP the following year as a senior. He led the school in receiving for three straight years, averaging 15.2 yards per catch in his college career.
None of that would have been possible, Smith said, without the coaching he got at St. Francis.
“They mold you into men. They really do. When you go to college as an athlete, you’re a kid, and those coaches help you become a man. Well, at St. Francis, they’re already doing that,” he said. “I think a lot of parents hope that every high school coach does that, but nobody does it better than St. Francis. I’ve worked the southwest area in Texas, the high schools there, it’s big-time football – a lot of following and stuff. But the program is about the people. Those guys at St. Francis are second to none. I really believe that.”
Climbing the ladder
Smith signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent after the 2006 NFL Draft, but was released that summer. His next NFL opportunity came with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed him in January 2007.
Smith was allocated to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe, leading the team in punt returns. He returned for the 2007 preseason and played in three games for the Bucs before being released before the start of the regular season. It was with Tampa Bay that Smith was first introduced to Doug Williams, who at the time was working as a personnel executive in the Buccaneers’ front office. Williams, who won the Super Bowl XXII MVP as the Redskins’ quarterback, moved to a front-office job with Washington in 2014. He was promoted to his current role as senior vice president of player personnel in 2017. He knew right away who he wanted to serve as his director of college scouting when the opening came up on his staff.
“Kyle is a guy that you could see had passion about what he was doing,” Williams said. “I was in Tampa when we brought Kyle there to camp as a player, and he’s the same way in his job. It’s easy to see the passion. This is his calling. To see him go out there, gather information and then to see how the other guys work under him, everybody in the building can see he loves his job.”
Smith jokes that his interests outside football are limited: Netflix and working out. That’s served him well in a demanding career that involves racking up plenty of Marriott points.
“The one thing that kind of shows how he’s gotten to his status and on the verge of some bigger and better thing is his love of football,” Otremba said. “There’s so many guys that see and talk about being great at something, but when it’s all said and done – even with unbelievable God-given ability – you’ve got to really put in a lot of work. It’s not in the games and it’s not with people cheering for you. It’s in the weight room, or running when nobody is around. He did that. I still use him as an example of making the most out of your opportunities with the guys I’ve got now.”
The final step on the personnel ladder would be as a general manager.
“You’ve got to give his dad some credit for opening the door for him. That part is true. But I think when the door was opened, he’s the one that went through it and showed he deserved to be in the room,” Williams said. “He earned that opportunity.”
If Smith reaches that highest rung, he’d become the third GM to come out of a small school in Athol Springs.
“We’re not Texas. We’re not Ohio or California or Florida, so to see where these guys are now, it’s just outstanding,” Otremba said. “The NFL is a big world. I get a little sentimental as I get older, but the values of what we learn in the classroom at our school I think serves well in so many different facets of life. There’s something going on right, because it fits really well in the football world. Hard work, integrity, driven to be successful – it mixes pretty well with that.”