FOXBOROUGH — There was a palpable sense of excitement on the third day of Patriots training camp. It was the first day in full pads. No one on the team seemed to appreciate that more than Will Smith, who donned pads for the first time since last year.
Smith, who had been with the Saints since being a first-round draft pick in 2004, signed with the Patriots May 5. The defensive end was out of pads — and football altogether — for the 2013 season after suffering a torn ACL in a Saints’ preseason victory Aug. 25 in Houston.
There was no understating Smith’s excitement to be involved in full contact work once again.
“It feels good, it’s been a while,’’ Smith said, after a workout before 13,819 who turned out to the upper fields behind Gillette Stadium.
“So I’m excited just to be out there running around in shoulder pads and doing regular drills,’’ Smith said. “So it feels real good.’’
Asked if pulling on his pads awakened his football senses, Smith laughed and said, “Yeah, definitely. It’s something I haven’t done — for almost a year — and that’s playing football, in full gear, and going out there and hitting people and tackling them, so it feels good to be back at it.”
Was there any awkwardness, initially?
“When you go out there, you just don’t know what to expect,’’ Smith said. “But once you get into the groove of things, everything just starts clicking.’’
At the time of his knee injury, Smith was trying to adapt to a new role as outside linebacker in the Saints’ 3-4 scheme. He had played defensive end in a 4-3 his first 10 seasons and led the team in sacks for four seasons. His 67½ career sacks ranks fourth all-time in Saints history.
Set to count as a $10 million hit to the Saints’ salary cap, Smith agreed to take a $6 million pay cut last year. But he was injured and, after spending a year of inactivity on the injured list, he was released. Through it all, Smith wondered if he’d ever get back on the field again.
“When you’re hurt, that’s always in the back of your mind,’’ he said. “You want to be able to get back on the field and be 100 percent, so that was a continuing process throughout the year, just thinking about that.’’
Smith, 33, knew if he had any designs of making a comeback, he would have to put in the work in his training and rehab regimen.
The time off, though, enabled his aching body to heal.
“My body definitely feels great,’’ Smith said. “I’ve been working out this past year just trying to get back to this point so I could be able to go out and play football.
“I don’t have the traditional aches and pains that most of the guys have from playing the last two years, three years or what have you, consistently.
“We just tried to focus more on core work and cardio. You still have to maintain your strength, but instead of getting stronger, for the most part, it’s about staying trim and being able to move.’’
Now, in New England, Smith is simply looking to resurrect his career and provide depth. The Patriots signed him to the league minimum ($855,000 base, $920,000 overall).
“I’m just excited to be here,’’ Smith said. “I’m just happy to be here and I’ll do whatever I can to help the team win.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.