As pleased as Will Smith was to be back at practice on Wednesday, he seemed even happier that he no longer has to worry about the specter of a suspension that has weighed on him for three seasons.
“I’m just glad to put it behind me,” said Smith, who in 2008 tested positive for a diuretic that is banned by the NFL because it can be used to mask steroid use.
“I know the coaches were always concerned about it, the fans, everyone was always concerned about it, and I’m happy that it’s over with now so I don’t have to worry about it and can just focus on football, focus on the Houston Texans and focus on the rest of the year.”
Smith, who has been New Orleans’ sack leader in four of the past six seasons, was among several players who delayed and ultimately reduced a four-game suspension they initially received for using StarCaps weight-loss pills. The pills contained the banned substance bumetanide, but players challenged the suspensions in court, arguing they should escape punishment because the banned substance was not listed on the StarCaps label, and because StarCaps was not on the NFL’s list of banned supplements.
Shortly before this season, the league decided to cut the suspensions to two games, and Smith served his during the Saints’ past two contests, a 42-34 loss at Green Bay and a 30-13 victory over Chicago.
Now, as New Orleans prepares to host Houston and prolific quarterback Matt Schaub this Sunday, Smith is officially back for his ninth NFL season.
“I’m pretty fresh. I haven’t done anything other than work out. So I don’t have the bumps and bruises as the other guys have,” Smith said.
Saints coach Sean Payton said he was eager to have Smith back after the way the former first-round draft pick out of Ohio State performed in the preseason.
“Will had one of his better training camps prior to the suspension. He’s in real good shape,” Payton said. “Any time you get a player like Will Smith back, one of your captains, someone who has been real steady for us and gives us a ton of good snaps, both against the run and the pass, it can only help you.”
Last season, Smith was second on the team with 5.5 sacks, a half-sack behind tackle Sedrick Ellis. He was one of the stars of the Saints’ victory on Thanksgiving in Dallas, with an interception and forced fumble.
The 6-foot-3 Smith said he is now between five and 10 pounds lighter than the 282-pounds he played at last season, and in better shape.
“I had a lot of free time this offseason just to kind of focus on things, get healthy, do little things to improve my body weight, lean up a little bit,” Smith said. “I feel probably the best I’ve felt since I’ve been playing, just comfortable with the calls and my ability to go out and do whatever I want to do.”
Smith gets his first chance to prove that against Schaub and the Texans’ offensive line.
“He’s been a great player in this league and we’re well aware of him coming back,” Schaub said. “Those guys up front are preparing for him. … It’s unfortunate when anybody gets suspended or anything like that, but you want to go against the best and you want to go against a team when they have everyone out there.”
Smith is two seasons removed from his career-high 13 sacks in 2009, which also ranked second in the NFC that season.
Smith’s defensive teammates said they looked forward to having him back on the field with them in a week when they have to try to slow down Schaub, who was fourth in the NFL in passing last season and first in 2009.
“He knows what he means to this team. He knows he was well missed,” safety Roman Harper said, adding jokingly that the best part of Smith’s game is when he flexes his biceps and kisses it after a sack. “We always need our defensive ends to play well, especially this week.”