PITTSBURGH — Karl Joseph was a freshman at West Virginia in 2012 the first time he faced Geno Smith.
Smith, along with future NFL wide receivers Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey, provided an immediate introduction to what college football was going to be all about for the young defensive back from Orlando.
Joseph suggested on Wednesday that his younger self might not have been on the winning end of those practice matchups too often.
“Yeah, he probably (picked on me) a few times,” Joseph said. “We had a lot of guys, man. … It was great coming in as a freshman to watch those guys work and the amount of touchdowns and points they put up.”
Nine years later, Joseph could be set to face Smith again when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football, though their paths to the pros haven’t exactly been of the straight-line variety.
A second-round pick of the New York Jets in 2013, Smith did not work out as a starter in New York, going 11-18 with a sub-60 completion percentage in two seasons as the Jets’ primary starter.
He spent two more seasons in New York as a little-used backup, then bounced to the Giants and Los Angeles Chargers before latching on with the Seattle Seahawks in 2020. He played in just one game in 2020, but impressed the offensive staff enough to get brought back for 2021.
When Russell Wilson suffered a finger injury last Thursday night, Smith was pressed into duty, and he finished 10 of 17 for 131 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but was unable to lead Seattle to a comeback against the Los Angeles Rams.
His career of trails and tribulations has added up to a player that’s an experienced and capable backup, and the outlook for defending Seattle won’t change much with Wilson expected to miss several weeks.
“Geno is no pup,” Steeles head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s 31 years old, he’s been in this league now a long time. I would imagine he’s in place there because he gives them an opportunity to function in a very similar manner, at least schematically, in terms of their personality (with Wilson). That’s what we’re anticipating. We’ve got a lot of respect for Geno.”
Joseph likewise took a circuitous route to his current location. The No. 14 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, he failed to live up to the expectations of his draft slot with the Oakland Raiders, then spent one season in Cleveland. He re-signed with the Raiders this summer, but was cut after training camp and landed on the Steelers’ practice squad.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the former top prospect, but Joseph, who had visited with the Steelers during free agency before choosing Las Vegas, jumped at the chance to play in Pittsburgh.
“It was just a great opportunity,” Joseph said. “It’s a team that I met with free agency. I’ve obviously always had a great respect for Coach Tomlin and what he’s about and the culture here. I went to school not too far from here so I know what it’s like to be a Steeler, the whole fan base and how they play defense here, so that was always something that was intriguing to me. So, when I got the opportunity, it was something that I couldn’t pass up, to come here with great group of guys and culture that’s built on winning. That’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
Joseph watched from the sidelines in the first four weeks, but after gaining some knowledge of the playbook and getting an opportunity thanks to an injury to Cam Sutton, Joseph was called up for the Steelers’ Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos. He played just two snaps of defense, lined up over the slot receiver in a Nickel role, while also contributing on special teams. It was just a taste, but Joseph thinks there could be more to come.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “It’s a weekly process, daily process, taking everything in from the guys that’s been here. … It felt great to actually suit up and go out there with those guys. Like I said, it’s a learning process for me. I’m just going to keep getting better. It’s a long season.”
Sutton returned to practice on Wednesday, so it’s unclear if Joseph will once again be called up for the Steelers this Sunday night, but if he does, he will be personally familiar with what Seattle’s starter.
“I know what he’s capable of,” Joseph said. “We’ve seen some of it when he got in his opportunity Thursday night last week. … He’s a playmaker, man. A playmaker with a big arm.”