The Buffalo Bills have had recent success in converting a wide receiver to a defensive back.
They are hoping, as they did with George Wilson before, that with Brandon Smith, they’re able to do it again.
The Bills promoted Smith from the practice squad to their 53-man roster this week, the latest step in what has been a remarkable journey for the 26-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif.
After being cut following short training camp stints with Carolina and Seattle prior to the 2011 season, Smith made the transition from receiver – which he played at Arizona State – to cornerback. He worked out with position coach Will Sullivan at the Fischer Institute in Phoenix to learn the nuances of the job.
But for two full seasons, the phone never rang. This spring, Smith attended a regional combine in an effort to attract the attention of any NFL team.
“Pretty much the bottom of the barrel,” he said.
The plan worked, though, and Smith landed a three-day minicamp tryout with the Green Bay Packers. He signed as a free agent and went through training camp before being released at final cuts.
He joined the Bills’ practice squad Sept. 10.
“It’s a blessing. I kept praying throughout those whole two seasons I was out,” he said. “It just shows you’ve got to stay fully committed to your dreams and goals. I’ve seen it first hand. I just kept the faith and now I’ve got a chance to play football again.”
Smith’s size and speed make him an intriguing project. He’s 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, can run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and has a 40-inch vertical leap.
“I understand my attributes as a corner – I’m bigger than most,” he said. “I’m good at the bump-and-run technique and can use my body downfield to mask receivers.”
The Bills like their cornerbacks to have the ability to play press coverage. Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during the preseason that Smith could do that “better than a lot of guys in the league right now.”
Whitt remains one of Smith’s biggest boosters.
“Even now, he tells me it’s unfortunate we didn’t get to work together,” Smith said. “It was kind of tough at first. But once you realize the technique of a corner and turn your mind to the other side of the field, then you’ll start to get the hang of the concepts they’re trying to run at you. I’ve just got to win the one-on-one matchups.”
Bills receiver Stevie Johnson missed practice Thursday as he is still in his home state of California after a death in the family.
Coach Doug Marrone said it’s going to be a “tough call” as to whether Johnson will be available to play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Complicating matters for Johnson and the Bills is a lower-back injury suffered in Week Five against the Cleveland Browns.
“I’ll get ready to call him here in a little bit. You know, see how he’s doing,” Marrone said. “Obviously he’s working on getting treatment out there. I really don’t know until he comes back and we’re able to talk with him and see how he feels. It’s quite a long travel for him, to Oakland and back, so I really don’t know.”
Since becoming a starter in 2010, Johnson has played in 53 straight games. He is not expected to return to the team in time for Friday’s practice because of the distance he has to travel.
“We’ve been communicating with him with the game plan and all that stuff. So he has everything, he has all the film,” Marrone said. “The one good thing about the iPads now is we have all that available for our players. It’s not like out of sight, out of mind, not here.”
Johnson has been in contact with receivers coach Ike Hilliard about the game plan, Marrone said.
“Ike’s working with him, making sure he’s looking at the stuff, making sure he knows the game plan, which he does. It’s just a matter of physically, can he go, and mentally,” the coach said.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist), cornerback Ron Brooks (foot), wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (hand), receiver Marcus Easley (ribs) and running back C.J. Spiller (ankle) were limited in practice.
“Much better than last week,” Marrone said of Spiller. “He’s moving on it and cutting on it. Those are the things he wasn’t able to do last week on it. He’s progressed quite well.”
The Bills were granted a 24-hour extension Thursday to try and sell the remaining tickets for Sunday’s game and avoid a blackout on local television.
The team has until 1 p.m. today to reach a sellout. As of Thursday afternoon, 5,300 tickets remained. The Bills are offering a $15 discount on tickets. They can be ordered online at buffalobills.com or by calling 1-877-BB-TICKS (1-877-4257).