Chiefs might have to lean on rookie Tremon Smith if Kendall Fuller can’t play

Kendall Fuller has been such a mainstay in the Chiefs defensive backfield that he hasn’t left a lot of opportunities for backups. That’s a big part of the reason rookie Tremon Smith remains relatively anonymous other than having taken over as the primary kickoff returner once De’Anthony Thomas went on injured reserve.

Up until this point, the 6-foot tall, 190-pound Smith has been primarily known as the speedster returner and the guy tapped to imitate Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in Chiefs practice earlier this season.

Depending on Fuller’s health after having hand surgery late last week, the Chiefs may have to turn to Smith and/or to fellow rookie Charvarius Ward. While Smith expects Fuller to play on Sunday, he also won’t be caught off guard if pressed into duty.

“Stay ready and you don’t have to get ready,” Smith said. “It’s just been preparing like I’ve been a day-one starter, which I’m not, but I’ve just been taking on that perspective.”

If Smith’s number gets called to step in as the nickel corner this weekend in a game with playoff seeding implications in Seattle, it will serve as a measure of validation for a choice Smith made in December 2017.

Last year while home during Christmas break from Central Arkansas, Smith informed folks in his hometown of Anniston, Ala., he’d decided to leave school a semester early to start training full time in preparation for the NFL Draft.

“It’s been crazy,” said Smith, the Chiefs’ sixth-round draft pick this past spring. “It’s been a roller coaster, definitely a lot of hard work and time put into everything I’ve been doing, a lot of studying, a lot of time in this field house since last December.”

Saks High School football and basketball coach Jonathan Miller was one of the people who recognized Smith’s eye-catching talent at a young age, and suspected early on that “big things” awaited Smith after high school.

That’s why Miller stressed to Smith following Smith’s sophomore season of high school that he had a chance to use football to go to college for free. Once that message sunk in and Smith saw college football as legitimate possibilities, “his talent just took over.”

“That’s the most impressive thing about Tre is from that point on, his work ethic went through the roof, even in college,” Miller said. “Any time he’s at home, even after he got drafted, he’s right there on our practice field. He’s got his cones, his ladder. He’s going through DB drills. He’s definitely earned and worked extremely hard to get to where he’s at.”

A first-team all-state quarterback as a senior after having played wide receiver as a sophomore and junior, he set school records for touchdowns scored and led the team to the state semifinals.

Smith, the first NFL player in Saks’ history according to Miller, played both sides of the ball (safety on defense) and returned punts. Ironically, the only thing Miller didn’t let Smith do as a senior was return kickoffs.

“He was definitely electric returning punts when they kicked it to him,” Miller said. “... We felt like they wouldn’t kick it to him, and also we wanted to minimize the chance of injury. We set the school record for offensive points in a season that year. So really, we just needed the football and our offense would take care of the rest.”

Miller, who uses Smith as an example for his current players, wasn’t the only one who had an inkling that Smith’s ability might carry him onto an NFL field one day. Greg Stewart, Central Arkansas’ defensive coordinator during Smith’s college career, made the prediction during the recruiting process.

“From the first time we talked on the phone, he said, ‘Coach, Tre is going to play on Sunday,’” Miller said. “He’s always had people in his corner that believed in him. He’s handled his business on the field and off the field from there.”

Once Smith embraced playing defense full time, which he admittedly resisted at first, he set himself apart despite playing at the FCS level in college. A two-time first team all-Southland Conference defensive back as well as all-conference punt returner, his 4.30 40-yard dash time certainly caught the Chiefs’ attention.

“He has done a good job,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of Smith. “We have had him work both corner and nickel. Obviously, he has been involved with (special) teams and that type of thing. I think he has progressed pretty nicely at this point.”

Sutton said Smith, who has played just 13 defensive snaps this season, will have to be ready for more playing time. Abundantly confident and competitive by nature dating back to his high school days, Smith likely won’t let the moment get too big for him if he’s got to fill Fuller’s shoes.

“(The important thing) is just being confident in my skill set and the hard work that I put in,” Smith said. “When two things like that combine, there’s no telling what you can do, so it’s just staying confident in my technique and my playmaking ability and just keep on working hard.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.