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Ken Norton Jr watched Malcolm Smith grow from guy who "would not speak" to now "running the defense"

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Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

From a football standpoint, there isn't a person on this planet who knows Malcolm Smith better than Raiders defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr. The two go "way back" and Norton puts it. And when he is asked about his now starting linebacker, Norton takes on a tone and demeanor one typically sees from a proud father.

"Malcolm, he's come a long way," said Norton. "Watching him grow over the years, from a high school kid, to college, to early pro to now and to see how he's really blossomed and he's been able to be very consistent with it. His leadership. I mean back in the old days, Malcolm would not speak. He would not say a word. Now he's running the defense. He has the microphone in his helmet and he's telling everybody to play now. It's amazing to see the growth and the maturity and the leadership that he's been able to become. I'm very, very proud to be a part of it."

Norton was the linebackers coach at USC when Smith was recruited out of Taft Union high school in Southern California. Norton, along with most of Pete Carroll's staff left USC for the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. And a season later, they had the opportunity to be reunited with Malcolm Smith, and with their final pick in the 2011 draft, they selected him.

Smith spent all four years of his rookie contract in Seattle, mostly as a backup or part time player. His best season came in 2013, when he took over as a starting outside linebacker and the Seahawks went on their Super Bowl run. Smith intercepted Peyton Manning and returned 69 yards for a touchdown and was named MVP.

After that he was once again relegated to backup, so when he became a free agent this offseason, he rejoined Norton in Oakland where he was given a legitimate chance to be an NFL starter.

He has taken that opportunity and ran with it. Last week against the Chargers he nearly ran with it for a touchdown.

It was the third play of the game and TJ Carrie defended a pass that was tipped right into the waiting arms of Smith who returned it 23 yards to the two-yard line, just barely missing out on a pick six.

The Raiders scored two plays later and it was the launching point for an outright demolition of the Chargers with the Raiders holding a 37-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Along with the interception, Smith led the team in tackles (11).

"I had a huge day riding on Malcolm," Jack Del Rio said following the game. "Malcolm has been tremendous since the day he got here. Just a great young man. We can count on him to do a lot. He gets a sack today, he gets a pick today, several passes defensed, [and] lots of tackles. Just a really good football player. Glad we have him. He's playing very well for us."

He has worked his way up to this point. As Norton said, he is running the defense. By the fourth game of the season, the Raiders realized it was best for the defense to have Smith on the field exclusively and switch out Curtis Lofton on passing downs. Smith took over the green dot helmet, which had him getting the defensive signals from the sideline and aligning his teammates. And as a result, he leads all Raiders defenders in snaps (444).

"It's something important for me to be able to do multiple things and kind of help out the defense wherever," Smith told Bay Area radio station 95.7 The Game.

"It's kind of a decision and an attitude ‘I'm gonna be out here as many plays as I can'. Last game I had to take a little break, but not much. I'd like to be out there as much as possible."

The change to making Smith the play caller and remaining on the field at all times has worked wonders for the performance of the defense.

It is yet another big step on a road which has seen Malcolm Smith fight to earn his shot every single step of the way. From nearly ‘Mr Irrelevant' in the draft, to Super Bowl MVP, to being the key cog in reviving the long flailing Raiders defense back to respectability.