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'I need to go to another level': Big Cat's big plan

Ben Guthrie  December 6, 2017 8:00 PM

AFL 2017 Second Semi Final - Geelong v Sydney

Zac Smith was brilliant in the Cats' semi-final win over the Swans

I thought I did that (elevate his game) last year but to compete with the top three or four guys in the comp I need to go to another level.

GEELONG'S Zac Smith is aware of the deficiencies in his game that are holding him back from being considered among the top handful of ruckmen in the AFL.

The Cats' No.1 big man knows the areas he needs to address, including his strength in the contest, his contested marking and his aerobic capacity, will give his club the best chance of making the Grand Final in 2018.

With those things in mind, Smith is driven to join the likes of Paddy Ryder, Matthew Kreuzer, Sam Jacobs, Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy, with his focus this pre-season to continually add new elements to his overall ruck craft. 

"I thought I did that (elevate his game) last year but to compete with the top three or four guys in the comp I need to go to another level," Smith said. 

"My actual strength in the gym, I've got to improve that. 

"A big focus for me will be marking. I need to take a few more contested marks each week and that'll really help improve me and the team this season."

Smith's performances late in the season, highlighted by his efforts in the Cats' semi-final win over Sydney, were befitting of a player on the cusp of elevating himself into the top echelon of ruckmen in the AFL. 

However, the 206cm big man was soundly beaten by Jacobs in the club's crushing 61-point preliminary final loss to the Crows at Adelaide Oval – a disappointing result for both Smith and the Cats after a promising lead into the finals.

Contested marking is one facet of Smith's game where he needs to improve in comparison to his contemporaries and it is why he is working so diligently on that area at training. 

Gawn, who averaged 1.7 contested marks per game in 2017, Ryder (1.64), Jacobs (1.44) Kreuzer (0.90) and Grundy (0.85) all shaded Smith (0.48) in that aspect of the game. 

"It's always good to go forward to be that target, but just in general around the ground it'll really help us link up play when we need to bail the ball long and I'm there to compete," Smith said.

"I've been good at providing that contest but I need to pluck a few more and I think it's as simple as repetition, repetition, repetition at training."

Smith (right) takes on star Crow Sam Jacobs. Picture: AFL Photos

While the areas that he needs to work on are evident to him, Smith's clearance work for such a big man is an important element for how Geelong structures up inside the centre square.

Smith, who averaged a career-high 3.95 clearances per contest in 2017, was better than both Jacobs (2.96) and Gawn (2.77) and only just behind Kreuzer (4.48), Ryder (4.18) and Grundy (4.05). 

The Cat's also ranked second among the listed ruckmen for average disposals per game (14.67), with just Grundy (18.40) winning more of the ball last season. 

Smith's ability to absorb body contact and maneuver his hands to feed the ball out to teammates in heavy traffic was vitally important for the Cats in clearing the footy out of the contest in 2017. 

With former Suns teammate Gary Ablett added to an onball unit that already contains Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood next season, Smith's role looms as crucial to the Cats' success.

"He's such a good guy to be around in the way he lifts the group," Smith said of Ablett.

"He's going to be awesome for the young guys as well I think. It's good to have him back and I never thought I'd be playing with him again so it's exciting." 

Ruck and role: How the position has evolved

Smith is also hoping to spend more time out on the ground in 2018, with the ruckman averaging just 78 per cent time on ground last year.

By comparison, Ryder (86.9 per cent), Grundy (85.5), Jacobs (84.7), Kreuzer (84.6) and Gawn (79.2) collectively outranked Smith in that particular indicator in 2017. 

A factor in that low stat was that Geelong often paired athletic big man Rhys Stanley in the same team as Smith, with the Cats also playing tall utility Mark Blicavs in the midfield. 

"If I can improve my tank a little more this pre-season I can be out there for most of the game and come off only once a quarter and really have an impact in there," Smith said. 

"When you've got two or three guys who can through there you don't really get a flow of the game – you're only in there for five or six minutes whereas you want to be in there for 10-plus minutes at times."