Coming out of William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., Malcolm Smith was a highly touted 4-star recruit. Scout.com noted that he could play three positions at the next level: linebacker and running back, which he played in high school, and safety because of his size and speed (6'2", 215 lbs).
Ultimately, he stuck to his roots and signed his letter of intent to play outside linebacker at the University of Southern California.
The move made sense. His brother Steve Smith (former New York Giants wideout) played football for the Trojans before he did. Furthermore, USC had just finished the 2006 season with an 11-2 record and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.
According to Scout.com, Arizona, California, Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State sent out offers, and Smith visited both California and Notre Dame. He ended up signing with Pete Carroll, a players' coach and leader of a dominant USC squad.
He made an immediate impact as a true freshman. In 13 games as a backup linebacker and special teams contributor, he tallied six tackles and one forced fumble.
Smith was relegated to backup duties for the second straight season in 2008. In his sophomore campaign, he tripled his tackle numbers and turned in three strong performances against Washington, Washington State and Virginia.
Prior to Smith's junior year, coaches named him USC’s starting weak-side linebacker.
Even though a shoulder injury limited him, he flourished when he was in the starting lineup. In 10 games, Smith registered 72 tackles, six tackles for loss, three pass deflections and a 62-yard pick-six. Additionally, he turned in four 10-plus tackle games and was named National Defensive Player of the Week after USC routed UCLA.
With a year of starting experience under his belt, he looked primed for a big senior season. While his numbers were ultimately impressive, his overall play on tape remained the same.
In 11 starts, he averaged 7.09 tackles per game, recorded eight tackles for loss and found the end zone twice. One of his scores was a 74-yard pick-six, and the other was a 68-yard scoop-and-score.
According to Fox Sports, Smith was dealing with a medical issue that affected his game on the field:
In his senior season at USC, he was diagnosed as having achalasia, a rare disease of the esophagus that hinders swallowing, causes regurgitation and makes nutrition a daily challenge. It afflicts about 1 in 100,000 people. Smith learned that he had been stricken by the illness in January 2009, when USC was on its way to the Rose Bowl.
All of that led to a seventh-round selection in 2011, and it was Carroll who took a chance on the player he recruited out of high school.
Expectations were low, but that didn’t matter to Coach Carroll and general manager John Schneider. The front-office duo felt like it could maximize his potential and eventually turn him into an every-down player.
“He has tremendous cover skills and an ability to blitz, and he’s a penetrating, run-through type of guy,” Carroll said on June 27, 2011, per Eric Williams of The News Tribune. “He gets to 235 or 238, he’ll be just fine. I’m not worried about that. We want him to play with the speed that he has, and the suddenness that he brings.”
The transformation of Smith’s game didn’t take place overnight.
When Seattle drafted him in 2011, he weighed 226 pounds, lacked discipline and struggled against the run. Nonetheless, his struggles weren’t physical. He ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times and posted a 39-inch vertical, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
In his first two years, Smith logged 248 defensive snaps, 38 combined tackles, two forced fumbles and one quarterback sack. Not huge numbers, but he was serviceable, especially for a seventh-round pick.
In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fifth-best 4-3 outside linebacker. He finished the year with a plus-5.1 grade against the run and a plus-3.7 grade in coverage.
Let’s not forget, he amassed those numbers in 11 starts (playoffs included). Smith received an opportunity when Bruce Irvin was hit with a four-game suspension and K.J. Wright went down with a broken bone in his foot.
In addition to accumulating one of the best PFF grades at his position, he piled up (playoffs included) 67 combined tackles, intercepted four passes, forced one fumble and sacked the quarterback once. Of his four picks, one secured a victory in the NFC Championship Game, and another changed the landscape of Super Bowl XLVIII.
The second one also helped Smith garner one of the most coveted awards in professional sports: the Super Bowl MVP. His emergence on the league’s brightest stage was unlikely, but lesser-known guys on the Seahawks defense are often overshadowed by big-name players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Smith's production, past and present, forced fans and media members alike to take notice. That’s good news for the 24-year-old playmaker who worked hard to get to the point where he is today.
"You dream of winning the Super Bowl," Smith told reporters after Sunday's 43-8 victory, via Greg Garber of ESPN. "But MVP? No. You put in the work and hope it's enough. But, recently, you appreciate every opportunity that comes to you."
After his showing against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos (10 tackles, a pick-six and a fumble recovery), Malcolm Smith is now a household name, and his legacy will forever be tied to the Seahawks' greatest win in franchise history.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus.