Lovie Smith was still trying to process the last five years of his career and how things ended at University of Illinois earlier this offseason when his phone rang.
Texans newly hired head coach David Culley was on the end of the line with an offer Smith, one of the game’s great defensive minds, couldn’t refuse. Culley wanted the Gladwater and Big Sandy High School product to join him as the Texans new associate head coach and defensive coordinator.
There really wasn’t a lot of conversation that needed to take place before Culley had his answer.
“I’ve known David Culley for a long period of time,” said Smith, who brings significant head coaching experience having been at the helm of the Bears and Buccaneers before taking over the Illni. “Knew what kind of man he was, what type of coach he has been throughout, and I know the influence that he would have on the organization, so that was an easy … wasn’t really a big sell job that David had to do. I thought it was an honor to be a part of his first staff.”
Smith takes over a defense that was among the worst in the NFL last season, finishing 32nd in rushing yards allowed, 30th in yards per game allowed and 27th in points allowed. But Smith is accustomed to turnarounds, having transformed the Bears from a losing team when he took over into a Super Bowl contender that finished second in the first Super Bowl matchup that featured two African American head coaches.
The Texans are shifting from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a more flexible 4-3 defense under Smith.
In order to facilitate the change in scheme and philosophy the Texans and first-year general manager Nick Caserio have done a significant overhaul on the defensive side of the football.
“I love all of the free agency moves that we’ve made because some of the positions we’re going to play with a little bit different guy,” Smith said. “Our linebackers are more space guys, run, speed as a premium with it. Having a four-man front now, we have to kind of adjust that a little bit, but I feel like we’ve done that.”
One of the biggest defensive departures, of course, letting go perennial All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. For years, the team, the defense and pretty much the city strongly identified with Watt, who is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals. Smith recognizes the void, but he believes the new crop of players are ready to step up where Watt left off.
“Change brings about a lot of different things, and now it’s that next group,” Smith said. “It’s their time. Who’s the next J.J. Watt coming up? That’s what I’m excited about. That next person who’s going to step up and be able to perform like J.J. did consistently.”
New Texans players like Christian Kirksey are ready to step up to the challenge and look forward to playing under a defensive coordinator with Smith’s reputation.
“First, it means a lot to play with Lovie Smith,” said Kirksey, who signed with the Texans as a free agent in April. “I know a lot about him and heard a lot about him just growing up in the football world. I’m excited to play in his defense.”