TAMPA — A year ago, Jacquies Smith hadn't arrived to the Bucs.
In last year's season opener, he was inactive on the Bills roster, having never taken a snap in the NFL. He was waived the next day and claimed the day after that by the Bucs, who now count on him as an opening-day starting defensive end.
"It's big for me," said Smith, whose first name is pronounced ja-QWEES. "You've been dreaming of things like this. When you're growing up playing football, coming out opening day and being a starter, I'm just proud of myself for getting here, proud that I have the respect of the guys upstairs and the guys around here that they would look at me as a starter."
Joining the Bucs in Week 2 last season, Smith needed time to learn the defense. He had one tackle in his first six games in limited action. Then something clicked, and Smith had 6½ sacks in seven games, working his way into the starting lineup for the second half of the season.
Consider this: 6½ sacks is as many as the Bucs' other three defensive ends have in their careers combined. George Johnson, acquired from the Lions this summer, has six of those sacks, all last year, but will make his first career NFL start in Sunday's opener against the Titans opposite Smith.
Smith has had the benefit of a full offseason to better understand the Bucs defense, and though he was limited to one preseason game by a triceps injury, he's far ahead of where he was when he came in a year ago.
"Last year it kind of took me awhile before I began to start playing fast," said Smith, cut by three teams in two years before landing with the Bucs. "Now that I know the ins and outs of this defense, everything the coaches are asking for, I can play a whole lot faster."
The Bucs tried to address their outside pass rush in free agency, just missing on veteran Derrick Morgan, who opted to re-sign with the Titans. Coach Lovie Smith said he has confidence in his young end — "Jac" for short — and how far he has come since he joined the Bucs.
"He's a good football player. He's showed that, demonstrated that to us last year," the coach said. "We need his presence on the edge rushing the passer. He's a guy who plays hard every snap."
Finding an outside pass rush remains an issue for the defense, whose strength might be defensive tackle, with exceptional depth around Pro Bowl player Gerald McCoy. For defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the concern is whether the defense has the speed and talent outside to take advantage of quarterbacks being flushed out of the pocket by the interior linemen.
"It depends on where our defensive ends are," said Frazier, hopeful the Bucs can end a 10-year drought of not having a player reach 10 sacks in a season. "It's a matter of what we get on the edge. If we can get production on the outside, our pass rush should improve."
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To win Sunday, the Bucs likely need to be able to pressure Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who didn't make many mistakes in college. He had just eight interceptions in 831 pass attempts in the past two seasons. The added difficulty he brings is his mobility, being able to avoid sacks with his quickness.
"He presents some challenges. He can get outside the pocket and throw very well," Jacquies Smith said. "He's fast. He's probably one of the fastest quarterbacks in the league already right now. You can tell by looking at film that he's smart, knows what he wants to do with the ball. We're going to have a big challenge on our hands."