As far as debut AFL seasons go, Bailey Smith’s was quite extraordinary.
If his start to 2020 is anything to go by, those pre-season plans to take his game to a whole new level are coming to fruition.
The 19-year-old has emerged as one of the brightest midfield talents in the competition.
Smith didn’t miss a match in his first year in red, white and blue, getting a taste of finals football while splitting his time between the forward line and the midfield.
He’s spending much more time in the engine room this year – going head to head with the competition’s biggest names – after developing strong relationships in his debut year, which is starting to benefit him and the Bulldogs.
“It helps a lot (getting that opportunity), but I feel a lot more comfortable there as well,” Smith told westernbulldogs.com.au.
“I’m lucky I get the opportunity to expand my game and get to play a lot more time in there as opposed to last year.
“You look at the names in there to learn off – ‘Bont’, ‘Dunks’ and Jack Macrae – all in the All Australian squad last year with two making the team, it’s just a privilege to learn off them.
With Josh Dunkley injured, fellow star Lachie Hunter having missed four weeks through suspension and new skipper Marcus Bontempelli having to work through a tag most weeks, Smith’s impact has been noticeable.
Taking away the game against North Melbourne – where Smith played little part due to an early concussion – the young gun has averaged 23 disposals and almost five tackles per game.
With a year at the Kennel under his belt, he’s feeling more comfortable by the minute.
“For me, it’s more looking to develop more of a connection with my teammates and especially that midfield group,” Smith said.
“To gain that trust from the boys in there to do my role each week is going a long way to my confidence.
“Developing that friendship and connection with the boys in there has been a big one for me.”
Don’t for a second think that level of comfort makes Smith content with where he’s at, as debate rages over the stellar draft class of 2018 and where players rank.
“Even though I am quite competitive, I don’t like listening to that talk,” he said.
“It’s me vs me I worry about – how I’m improving each week and the team’s improving each week, not opposition players and draftees I got drafted with.”
There is one player Smith was drafted with though who he takes a particular interest in.
And that’s teammate Laitham Vandermeer, who has started to make a name for himself over the past month since his round two debut.
The speedster from country Victoria came through the same draft as Smith and has overcome the injuries which hampered him last year.
“Laith and I went to school together, played in the same team, same tutor group, same house at school… it’s really good to see him do what I know he can,” Smith said.
“He’s showing the supporters how good a footballer he is.
“I’ve been doing work with him for a long time, trying to get each others’ games better. To see that come to fruition on the weekend has been huge the past couple of weeks.”