State of the Hogs: T. J. Smith Sees Wonderful World

T.J. Smith gives the Hogs perfect rotation at weakside defensive tackle with Jeremiah Ledbetter. Smith has turned heads early in spring drills and looks forward to a Saturday scrimmage.

T.J. Smith doesn't have his saxophone at school. It's back in Moultrie, Ga. But if it were in the Ozarks as the Arkansas redshirt freshman headed towards a big scrimmage Saturday, there's no doubt what he would play.

"It would be Louis Armstrong," Smith said after practice Thursday. "You know, I see trees of green, red roses, too! I'd play that. It's my favorite."

Smith has been one of the favorites of Arkansas coaches through six days of spring drills. He's been praised from head coach Bret Bielema to defensive coordinator Robb Smith and defensive line coach Rory Segrest for a solid start to spring.

Smith just beams as those words are mentioned, knowing that he's still a second teamer behind another spring sensation, senior tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter.

It was Smith's play on the scout team and in bowl practices that made it an easy decision for coaches to move Taiwan Johnson back to nose tackle. They know the 6-3, 284-pound Smith will join Ledbetter for a solid one-two rotation at the key position in the Arkansas defensive front.

It's that weakside tackle position that is so important in Robb Smith's 4-3 defense. Darius Philon sparkled there two years ago in a triangle that included end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight.

Ledbetter moved from end last year to play the "three" technique. Smith was an end two years ago in high school, but moved to tackle as a senior at Colquitt County, his first year there.

"I knew I was going to play inside here," Smith said. "I love it. I want to be in there. It's fun in there, kind of dirty."

Smith isn't dirty. Hardly. He's as classy as any Arkansas player, a true gentleman off the field. Well spoken and bright, coaches praise him for his technical ability on the field. He plays with a low pad level and great hands. He's got an explosive burst, the prerequisite to play the "three" the way Philon played it.

"I spend all the time I can watching both Darius and Taiwan play that spot," Smith said. "I'm trying to learn as much as possible. I try to be technical. I'm trying to learn something every day.

"Coach Segrest is a teacher. He shows it to you and if you don't get it, he shows it to you again."

Smith said the Hogs had a light practice Thursday, just in "half pack" with no leg pads. They cut about 30 minutes off the workout.

"Coach Bielema wants us to be fresh for Saturday," Smith said. "He wants us to be explosive."

That's the way Smith is trying to play the three technique.

"I'm honored to be there," Smith said. "I was listed as an end when I signed, but I knew I was going to be inside. That's where I fit. I know the three is a big position for us. So I was glad to get to play it."

Smith played so well early in his redshirt season that both Smith and Segrest toyed with the idea of burning the redshirt at midseason.

"We could have, but I don't think it would have been fair to T.J.," Segrest said. "But he could have helped us. We had some guys beat up in there and he was practicing so well."

Smith said he wanted to play, but knew it was smart to keep the redshirt.

"Coach Segrest and I talked about it," he said. "He said it would be better to keep (the redshirt). By the same token, I would have been glad to play. But to look at it down the road, I'm going to be a much better player in my fifth year than I would have been last year."

Smith was brilliant in bowl practices. He was excited to see what he could do this spring after a good winter in Ben Herbert's offseason program. And, he's getting started. He didn't begin football until his junior year in high school. He doesn't turn 19 until April 19,  the Tuesday before the spring game.

"I was 292 when I got here, and now I'm 284," he said. "I think it's a much better 284. I'm stronger and faster. I'm at a good weight and it's been good for my quickness. I'm stronger and faster."

Smith has not played the saxophone in front of his teammates. He may some day.

"There is music in my family," he said. "Both my grandfathers are singers. My mom is a good singer, too."
Has he played sax with his grandfathers as singers?

"I have not," he said. "I'd like to do that, but one is deceased and I'd have to learn some Gospel tunes for him to sing with me. I may have to learn some. That would be fun. I can sing a little."

It didn't take much encouragement for Smith to break into his best Louis Armstrong. He wasn't sure of the song title, so he just sang it.

Yes, that's A Wonderful World. And, that's what it will be Saturday in the scrimmage.

"That's what we live for, to get out there as a defense and scrimmage," he said. "I know there will be fans there, but by the same token, it's a practice. We are trying to get better and learn. I'll be trying to do my job, fill my role to the maximum."

Smith did his best Louis Armstrong imitation Thursday. When the scrimmage rolls around Saturday, he'll flip the switch and try for his best Darius Philon imitation. If it's as good as his singing Thursday, the Hogs may have something this fall as they rotate T.J. Smith with Jeremiah Ledbetter.

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