Hayden Smith has never backed down from a challenge.
Yet, for a guy who’s succeeded at every new challenge put in front of him, he knew it was nothing he couldn’t handle.
He played Division II college basketball here in the United States before taking up rugby and getting selected for the U.S. national team. He played professionally overseas for English club Saracens for the last few years.
But he couldn’t help but be intrigued by the National Football League, and he soon set his sights on a new sport.
“To play in the NFL would undoubtedly be the pinnacle of my career,” Smith said earlier this year. “I will do whatever it takes to make my dream a reality.”
At 6’6, 255 lbs, there’s no question that Hayden Smith has the physical tools to play at this level. His raw athleticism, and his strong desire to succeed, was enough to impress tight ends guru Tim Brewster.
A former tight end himself, Brewster is highly regarded among tight ends coaches. He mentored San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates when Gates was making the transition from basketball to football.
“Gates is 6’2, 260 lbs,” Brewster said. “[But Hayden Smith is] just a different kind of guy. The thing about Hayden is he is going to be a true, three-down player in the National Football League.”
“This kid at 6’6, he’s going to do a great job blocking the line of scrimmage and then he’s going to also have the ability to stretch the field and do some things in the passing game. He has outstanding hands.”
When Brewster trained Smith in March, he was very impressed with what Smith brings to the table.
“I was really amazed at a couple of things,” Brewster said. “First, his ability to assimilate all the information I was throwing at him. He gets it. Football makes sense to the kid. Second, his work ethic [is] off the charts.”
“He’s a way above-average athlete for the position,” Brewster said. “I think the kid has an outstanding future.”
There’s no doubt that Smith is a project. The Jets knew it when they signed him. But like Brewster, they believe that he’s worth the investment, especially for a guy they were carrying on the practice squad.
“A lot of coaches shy away from guys that haven’t played the game because it is an exhausting process,” Brewster said. “To me, that’s the exciting part.”
“Taking a piece of clay like that, and I am going to tell you Hayden Smith is one beautiful piece of clay, just mold them into what you want him to be.”
When the Jets signed Hayden Smith to a three-year deal worth near the league minimum, they likely expected for him to spend a full year on the practice squad, maybe more, before he would be ready for an NFL game.
Yet, before Halloween in his rookie year, the basketball player turned rugby player turned tight end has been signed to the active roster, taking the place of reserve wide receiver Jason Hill, who was cut.
Jeff Cumberland is out this week, leaving Dustin Keller and Konrad Reuland the only healthy tight ends on the roster. Smith is likely going to be active on game day as the third tight end.
“Hayden’s doing awesome.” Keller said. “He is such a big target and he has as good a hands as anybody. He catches everything his way. With more and more work, I’m excited to see what he develops into.”
Hayden Smith is ahead of schedule, and it’ll be interesting to see how much responsibility the coaches give him. I’m excited to see what he can do. Now, and into the future.