On his first-ever trip to Cowboys HQ as a member of the team, Mazi Smith got candid with what he brings to the table, how thrilled he is and why he's far more than what meets the eye
FRISCO, Texas — Mazi Smith gleefully bounced through the doors at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Friday morning, welcomed by a member of the Dallas Cowboys public relations department and (attempted) to put on his new team's cap for the first-time as a member of the organization, wearing an ear-to-ear grin so large you could've counted each of his 32 teeth from the I-635 overpass.
In that moment, he was little more than a (very) big kid seeing his lifelong dream become a reality, and it's still undetermined if he actually needed an aircraft to fly into Dallas.
It's entirely possible he floated all the way here on a cloud of euphoria.
"This is crazy. [I'm in] the place I wanted to be," said Smith as he settled into the luxury-laden confines of the Cowboys official bus, i.e., Jerry Jones' wheels. "This was one of the staffs that I got along with the best, and that I felt at home with and that everything was good — this was one of those places."
Smith, a First-Team All-Big Ten talent in 2022 who also found himself ranked No. 1 on Bruce Feldman's "Freaks List", landed one of the Cowboys' coveted Official 30 visits after having also met with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and other members of the team at the 2023 NFL Combine in Indianapolis; and the final visit was one that truly focused on the familial bond of it all.
In other words, at that point, the Cowboys knew Smith had the skill set to be their highest-graded defensive player on their board at No. 26, but they wanted to know who he was — as a man, a son and a community-minded human being.
He passed those tests with flying colors as well and, all told, it's another key reason head coach Mike McCarthy described Smith’s selection as an early “Christmas” gift.
"Being with people who value what you do makes you want to do it better," said Smith. "You can learn a lot from those people."
Some of those people he's referring to is two-time First-Team All-Pro pass rusher Micah Parsons, who leaped out of his chair and celebrated after seeing Smith get the nod in the first round.
Why was Parsons so ecstatic, though? Well, it's because he not only understands fully what dropping a talent like Smith into the interior of the defensive line does for freeing up the matchups on the edges, but Parsons also lobbied fairly heavily to Quinn and staff to make the former Wolverine the selection.
The two-time Pro Bowler and 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, in one instance, sent a text to Quinn that simply read "Michigan DT" hours ahead of the start of the first round.
Quinn's reply: "I'm all about that life!!!!!!"
There were literally six exclamation points, by the way.
"Let's go, man!," yelled Parsons after the pick. "I told you Dan wouldn't let me down! We're about that life!"
Smith was floored by the revelation that Parsons pounded the table for him, along with how thrilled Quinn was about his chances throughout the entire pre-draft process up to and after the moment his name was called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"I was like, 'Maz, you gotta work harder,'" he said while wearing what's already become his telltale smile. "I'm a hard worker but it'll never be enough for a guy like that. So when I become part of the team, I wanna make everybody happy and trust in me, make everybody proud. Those are [my] big brothers already and I haven't even met them [yet].
"I'm not gonna let them down."
It doesn't hurt that he's coming into a defensive unit that's one of the best in the league in every category that matters, but also struggled in an area he excels at — making for a perfect matrimony.
"I'm so excited to be around some dawgs who know what it looks like and knows what it takes, so they can tell me what it takes [to be great in the NFL] and what it looks like and what I need to do to be who I'm supposed to be to help this team win," said Smith. "I'll fit right in."
He is champing at the bit to get his hands on offensive linemen in the NFL, truly, my belief here being based on the fact that he repeated over and over his hunger to "hit somebody" between hot mic moments, both during transport to The Star in Frisco and as he toured the facility — barely able to contain himself.
By the time he made it to the strength and conditioning room, it was all he could do to not start slinging weights around. Instead, he was greeted by players like Osa Odighizuwa and Tyler Smith (outside of the weight room) and Dante Fowler (inside of it), before leaving and, lo and behold, seeing Quinn standing in the hallway having grabbed some lunch.
When the two saw each other again, now with Smith being one of Quinn's players, the energy in the air was so electric they could've charged every nearby smartphone wirelessly.
It's the first time the Cowboys have used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle since Russell Maryland in 1991, a selection that helped propel the franchise to three Super Bowls in its dynasty years at the front end of the Jerry Jones era.
More than 30 years later, it's Smith being looked at to help the club take the next step.
"I'm excited to get pointed in the right direction," he said. "To climb this big ole' mountain, they'll tell me where to start. I'm excited to get into the heavy duty [part] of things. I'm ready to put this work in and feel what my first offensive lineman feels like in the NFL."
One of the most impressive physical attributes that will likely make Smith a force in this league is his strength, and that's saying the least. It is not a stretch to compare his to that of the legendary Larry Allen, and all one needs to do is watch his Michigan workouts to prove that true.
At one point with the Wolverines, the manufacturer of one of the machines was called in to add weight so Smith could reach his goal of moving 800 pounds (and he did it).
When exactly did it strike him that he was born with abnormal strength, the likes of which would make Thanos rethink his approach in a bout?
"I recognized I was real big early, because I kept hurting my friends," said Smith, chuckling. "I was like, 'Let me relax'. But I realized I was strong because, coming out of eighth grade and going into ninth grade, they had us lifting twice a week. They had the underclassmen who weren't in high school lifting twice a week, and I kept begging them to let me lift full-time like I was a high schooler.
"They finally did. I got in there and was stronger than people. I was like, 'Damn, I'm an eighth grader and I'm just throwing weight around.' I spent a lot of time in the gym and my coach would just look at me after I'd put something on the bar and say, 'You sure you can do that?'
"I was like, 'Yea, I got it.' And I'd hit it and he'd just be standing there in disbelief. That's when I knew. … Another way was in my freshman year, when I got moved up to varsity, I started playing against all the O-linemen that were seniors and I started pushing them around.
"I was like, 'Oh, OK. We're in business.'"
Indeed he was, and indeed the Cowboys now are, also being clear that Smith will be more than just a stationary brick wall at 1-tech (or 0- or 2-tech) in Dallas — those designations being determined by where he lines up opposite center (0-tech is nose-to-nose, while 1- or 2-tech are slightly left or right of center, respectively).
According to all involved, there's a bigger plan at play here.
"People want to pigeonhole him as a nose tackle," said Executive Vice President and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones. "That would be the only thing people can say when you take a nose tackle in the first round, but we believe there's more to him than just the nose. That's what he was asked to do at Michigan and he played his technique amazingly, but rarely was he going straight uphill and pushing upfield vertically on the snap. Most of the time he was playing the read on the run.
"When we did see it, we really liked it. He can get an edge and be disruptive."
For his part, Smith is all-in on doing exactly that in Dallas: dominating the interior while also providing an extra, and extra large and athletic, option across the defensive line.
"When you're strong like me, you can push the pocket, and when you can push the pocket, you force the quarterback to not be able to step up — that's gonna cause big issues," he said of his ability. "I'm an integral piece in the [pass] rush. And on top of that, I'm athletic enough to work an edge. I'm strong enough to run down somebody's face, athletic enough to rush the edge.
"I just gotta learn how to do [the latter] because it's all about technique and finishing. You've got to be able to finish on the quarterback, get in spectacular shape so you can finish on the quarterback over and over again. That's one of the things I plan on working on here soon and becoming a complete player."
He couldn't be in a better situation to learn said technique(s), because he'll not only benefit from tutelage under the aforementioned Parsons, but also DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Hall of Famers DeMarcus Ware and Charles Haley, the latter two frequently offering their services to Cowboys pass rushers and defensive linemen.
"This is a perfect storm for me," said Smith. "I've got guys that I can trust to lead, and that's why you really wanna get around dawgs like that. They don't have to tell you because they're gonna show you how to do it. And you're gonna match their energy.
"That's why you draft players like me."
Yes, that is exactly why.