Smith Accepts Leadership Duty With Offense

This first day of fall classes is one more reminder for Chris Smith: he's a senior. He's officially an old Dog now. "Yeah, it came about fast," Smith mused. So given this last go-round Smith intends to make it his best.

"As the years went on I just tried to progress and to find one thing each and every year I should be better at. I've still got time to develop before the season starts."

Under two weeks' time that is. The 2012 clock is ticking faster not just for Smith himself but an entire Mississippi State offense. Expectations, inside and outside the Bulldog locker room, are running high again, and reports by players and coaches alike remain upbeat. Outside observation can't confirm this of course but it's hard to fake the degree of optimism shown this August.

Smith certainly follows the theme. A combination of experienced receivers, a maturing quarterback, and looser leash from the coaches has made this a productive preseason.

"It's going well. It's going well. I like all the plays we put in, it's like it gives you more freedom. Back then it was done one way; because we were so young we didn't know what to do. We had to do it their way. Now we know what to do." And thus are being turned loose to do what they do.

"You've got to know what to do, how to do it, and when to do it," Smith explained. "Now we know what to do it, it's how to do it; now we know how to do it, when you're going to do it is our deal."

That is the natural progression Coach Dan Mullen expects of all players, the what-how-when-why stages of understanding the systems. On both sides of the ball and regardless of position, too, but naturally it is more fun to discuss offensive developments. In Mississippi State's 2012 case the interest is even greater given familiarity with the thrower, junior QB Tyler Russell, and all those veteran targets to toss at.

Four of whom are seniors no less, as well as a fourth-year junior. In fact all of the top eight ends, split or tight, on the '11 stat sheet are back for more this fall. There hasn't been this depth of experience and, better, quality among MSU route runners in a long, long time. No wonder expectations are spiking.

"Oh yeah, we're going to do something really special," Smith said. "All of us are put in a position now to make more plays. Right now as you know we're going to spread the ball around a lot, because we have a lot of seniors around and a quarterback that can throw the ball."

As in really throw the ball. This is no knock on 2010-11 starter Chris Relf, who it needs reminding left State as the second-most-accurate passer in program history. Guess what? While he started just four games and has played barely a full season, Russell ranks #4 on the career percentage chart himself already. If preseason reports are fair indication, better is in store.

"It's been wonderful," said Smith, who admittedly might be a bit prejudiced towards his high school comrade. But old ties don't matter as much as current catching. Smith and cohorts are confident the football is coming their way more and more efficiently in 2012 with Russell stepping on up.

"Tyler is the type of quarterback that if he sees something he's going to get it right there. He ain't the type of quarterback that got to say to a receiver I'm just going to throw it in. Tyler is the type of quarterback that if he sees it's not going to work he's going to say that's it and he's going to make it work.

"Tyler can be unbelievable, man. He's capable of making big plays. He has a great arm and everything can be better. He's smart, sometimes he overthinks! But he's a game-changer. And he's just willing to give up everything when the game is on the line." By the way, Mullen confirmed Smith's impression of over-thinking Saturday. The coach thought Russell was trying for perfection to begin the scrimmage but loosened-up and made things happen as in a real game.

For his part Smith has stuck to the preseason regimen of grinding away at rough spots in the throw-and-catch plan. He enjoyed a breakout junior year with 35 catches, most on the club, averaging over nine yards each grab with a pair of touchdowns. One of those receptions earned regular replay as after a leaping grab of Russell's throw Smith was cartwheeled mid-air and spiked the Scott Field turf head-first. No damage was done fortunately, and Smith's reputation for making tough traffic plays was cemented. He plays the ‘big' receiver position, though 6-2 and 205 isn't all that huge by SEC standards. Still for years Smith has been the bigger available body in his receiver corps.

Help is on the way now. Mullen was tempted to take the redshirt off Joe Morrow often last season but resisted temptation. Now the still-freshman is available. And ready, at 6-4 with long arms and strength to boot. For that matter Smith can see the transition in recruiting with more physical receivers coming into the program along the likes of Morrow and Robert Johnson. Downfield speed ought to be a bit better as well with the ongoing development to Jameon Lewis to push his elders.

Smith welcomes all this aid. "It helps me a lot. It kind of cuts down the reps a little bit in practice, but I understand the young guys have got to learn, too. I already know what to do, you know what I'm saying? I'm glad the young guys are in. They've got to learn, I've got to be an example. Like I always say, I've got to try to be a leader."

Leadership is something that seems inevitable for seniors. In reality it is a state of mind most must develop just like any on-field skill. In Smith's case assuming responsibility has meant changes. Such as talking more to media, not his strongest point early on. "Yeah. I mean, I didn't really have that much to say! I was just trying to do my job, just trying to get in good with my team and my coaches."

His performance took care of that. And now Smith has a position to speak from, sort of like when he and Russell were seniors at Meridian High School on their way to the state championship. Smith jokes that he was burned-out by having too much attention then, and he welcomed a lower-key life here at State as an underclassman. "You didn't have to worry about someone in your face, you just really got your ‘me' time. Now it's kind of the same thing but more questions and interviews. People just love you, it's like you're the man!"

This means being the man among the men and boys too. Happily, Smith said, words aren't required as much in drills as actions in teaching younger receivers. "I don't have to tell them that. They see me and other dudes. Coach uses me as an example; ‘look at his feet, look at him being physical, he went and put his nose in'. So they have to learn like that, and ‘OK, I see that, I see how Chris does it'. They look up to me and I try to do all my job right for them to get better, to say they can do the same thing. I love being an example."

And being an old Dog, too. Sure there is that sense of urgency, that this is his biggest chance at bigger things. So tension is part of the preseason approach. But mostly it is just excitement about what 2012 can become for the Bulldogs. Sort of like 2008 at Meridian High, even. "Now this year we're trying to do the same thing in my senior year. We do talk about it a lot."

Now it's a SEC reality Smith could barely envision way back then.

"When I first came in, man, I didn't know what to do! You know how it is when you're a freshman, you don't know what to expect. But as the years have gone by I've seen myself being a leader in the future." A future that is now, too.

"Shoot, now I'm a leader, now I'm a senior. It came by so fast. So fast."

The Bulldogs are not practicing Monday for the first class day of fall semester. They return to work Tuesday afternoon as practices transition from training camp to preparations for opening the 2012 season. Following practice Mullen is scheduled to meet with media, where the abrupt Sunday resignation of wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando and potential staff adjustments for the season will be addressed.

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