The Tennessee Titans signed several undrafted free agents at the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft. I’m in the middle of interviewing as many of them as I can. I’ll link the previous interviews at the bottom of this post. At least one of these players is going to make the roster. Enjoy!
Former Cincinnati punter James Smith is one of those players. Smith has a fascinating story. He was born in Wangaratta, Australia and joined the Bearcats as a true freshman in 2017. He trained for 16 months before earning a scholarship. He now leaves Cincinnati for the pro ranks as the school’s all-time leading punter and as a four-time all-conference player.
Smith recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports about how he formed a relationship with Tennessee throughout the pre-draft process, his Australian beginnings, and how he fell in love with football. Smith also broke down the art of punting to us. Enjoy!
JM: What was draft weekend like for you?
JS: To put it lightly, it was probably one of the most stressful weekends I’ve ever experienced (laughs). The entire process was a rollercoaster of emotions. That was especially true on Day 3 for us specialists. I let out a big sigh of relief after the draft when the Titans made the call and offered me a chance to be a part of their roster.
JM: How did the opportunity with the Titans come about?
JS: I had a few conversations with [assistant special teams coach] Matt Edwards throughout the draft period. We talked about there potentially being an opportunity for me to Nashville. They basically just asked me if I would consider going to the Titans if I was still available after the draft. I told them that I would consider going anywhere that presented me with an opportunity. We went through the process and I didn’t get drafted. I started going through my options and felt like Tennessee was the right opportunity for me at this time.
JM: You had conversations with coach Edwards. I imagine you met with the team at the Senior Bowl as well. To my knowledge, every prospect at the Senior Bowl met with every team. What were your meetings like?
JS: I actually didn’t meet with the Titans at the Senior Bowl. The specialists didn’t meet with many teams in-person at the Senior Bowl. What you said about every player meeting with every team face-to-face applied to everyone BUT the specialists (laughs). We sorta’ got shafted there. We ran through some virtual stuff instead.
JM: That’s interesting information. I imagine you met with other teams and had other offers. Why did you feel Tennessee presented you with the best opportunity?
JS: I have respect for the opportunity. They have an excellent veteran punter in Brett Kern. I could learn a lot from him. I had to weigh up where I think I could go. I thought about where I could get some reps and put some good things on film. I think Tennessee is a place where I could flourish. I had some great conversations with the Titans coaching staff. I came away thinking that this was the best fit for myself.
JM: I love that. You hail from Wangaratta, Australia. How did you first fall in love with football? It’s not exactly the most popular sport in your home country.
JS: I sort of knew a little bit about the game growing up. I knew more about the NFL than I knew about college football at the time. The Super Bowl is always played on television in Australia. With the time difference, it comes on around midday for us. It’s usually the next day on the calendar as well (laughs). Watching the Super Bowl in Australia is a bit of a weird experience. I’ve watched the last four Super Bowls here in America.
I was always interested in the game. I kept up with the sport. I was familiar with the players. I had some mutual friends that played Australian Rules Football that went over to play college football in America. I played with these guys and they were in the process of making that transition. That’s when it started to get serious for me. That’s when I met with Nathan Chapman and John Smith. Chapman and Smith are two coaches/trainers in Australian Rules Football that helped a lot of guys make the leap to the United States of America over the last five or six years.
We started looking at my options. They thought my leg talent was tremendous. They said if I had any aspirations of playing college football at the D-I level, I absolutely had the talent to do it. They thought that I had a chance to even make a career of it. It was up to me. I bought into their program at Prokick Australia. Prokick has sent several punters to the NFL. We’re talking about Mitch Wishnowsky with the 49ers, Michael Dickson with the Seahawks, Cam Johnston with the Texans and so on. They’ve also sent more than 75 players to D-I college football. That training took me to Cincinnati where I was able to put together a strong four-year career. I’m really happy with what I achieved at Cincinnati. It became pretty apparent to me after my sophomore season when I was a finalist for the Ray Guy award [awarded to college football’s most outstanding punter] that I could really make a career out of this. I took it as seriously as I could during my junior and senior year. It’s been an unreal experience.
JM: That’s an incredible story. What a journey it’s been. You’re the best punter in Cincinnati history. When it comes to punting, how would you describe the balance between technique and mental awareness?
JS: They sort of go hand-in-hand. If you don’t have good technique, it’s pretty difficult to be a consistent punter. You have to be very sound with your mechanics in order to punt at a high level. What you do when it comes to ball drop, your alignment, walking a straight line, where you want the ball to go, location and placement, all of these things boil down to mechanics.
Self awareness is also very important. You have to be able to self correct. There aren’t a lot of NFL teams that have coaches on their staff that have actually punted in college or in the NFL. It’s incredibly rare. You have to be able to self correct yourself in a way where you know what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it. Coaches are very good nowadays. They know how to ask the right questions. They’ll ask if you know what you’re doing wrong and recommend little tweaks. It’s another set of eyes on you. You need to be aware in and around the pocket. You have to get your punts off in a timely manner. You can’t allow a punt to get blocked.
JM: That’s a terrific breakdown. I want to continue picking your brain on the mechanics of punting. How do you go about practicing ball placement and different ball drops based on field position?
JS: Practice, practice, practice. Throughout this draft process, I reckon that I’ve punted more balls than I did in my entire four years at Cincinnati. I was working on spirals and directional stuff three days a week. There was a fourth day in the week that was entirely dedicated to other aspects such as ball placement. It’s all about repetition. You have to be able to grind it out. I’ll kick a ball thousands of times. You have to know what you can and can’t do. Practice is the only way to learn. It becomes muscle memory at that point. At that point, if something is a little bit off, it can be corrected. You can save yourself with good technique. It’s all about that repetition. Of course there’s some natural talent that plays a part in it too. Me having an Australian Rules Football background definitely helps. I’ve always had the leg power. I had to perfect the technique.
JM: You’ve certainly done a great job working on your technique over the years. What’s the biggest difference between punting from your end zone or the opposition’s 45-yard line?
JS: You have to treat every situation differently. Punting from the opposite 45, you want to work more touch than anything. You want to bury that team inside their own 10-yard line. That’s what you want to do there. You want to put your defense in the best position possible to make a stop. If you’re punting from your own end zone, you’re trying to flip the field a bit more. You want to pin them as far back in their own territory as you possibly can. That’s how you put your defense in a favorable position. I’m not sure what the percentages are exactly, but the closer they start to your end zone, the better chance they have at scoring points. We don’t want that. Ideally, you want to get the ball to midfield at the very least when punting from your own end zone. That gives our defense the best possible chance for a stop.
JM: That’s the truth right there. I’m not sure how well you know the Titans roster, but is there a teammate you can’t wait to learn from or practice with?
JS: Definitely the punter, Brett Kern. He’s an elite player, one of the best in all of football. He’s been to several Pro Bowls. To be able to share the practice field with him, a punter of his calibre, I’m excited to pick his brain. He’s a 10 year veteran that’s done it all. He’s been around for a long time and he’s played the position at the highest level imaginable. It’s almost unheard of. I plan on gathering some useful information from him. I’m going to pick his brain and probably annoy him a little bit (laughs). I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to learn from him. He’s one of the best punters in the game. I’m blessed to be in this position.
JM: That’s a great choice. You can learn a lot from a punter like Brett Kern. I’ve really appreciated your time today, James. We’ve had a wonderful conversation and I appreciate you for letting me introduce you to Nashville and the Titans fan base. In closing, what are your goals and aspirations like over these next few months?
JS: I’m going to go in and take every opportunity. I’m going to make the most of this time period. I realize that there are no guarantees here. I’m here as an undrafted free agent. I have to prove myself and earn everything. I’m starting from scratch all over again. I have to impress the coaching staff and my teammates. I’m going to take the reps as they come. I’m happy to be here. I’m going to be a likeable person and a great teammate.
You never know what can happen.
Previous 2021 UDFA interviews:
Justus Reed (Reed was recently released from his contract with the Titans)