And one obvious area for upgrading is a Smith specialty: getting after quarterbacks. Sacks, hurries, just plain pressure on passers. The true junior defensive end reports that yes, this has been a preseason priority at practice.
"Oh yeah, we're competing for sacks this year. We're both trying to keep each other motivated, trying to put pressure on the quarterback, get the sack, and who can get there first."
Sounds like fun, hey? Not that Bulldog defenders are actually allowed to bring down Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott when scrimmaging of course (younger and walk-on quarterbacks are usually fairer game). Still how the front foursome executes against passing plays is very much on Mississippi State minds this month because it is an area to improve.
Last season produced a total of 19 sacks in 13 games. The defensive line accounted for 12.5 of those. Smith, in his second season, was able to lead the team with 4.5 sacks which was just in front of fellow end Denico Autry and linebacker Cameron Lawrence with 4.0 apiece. And as fans know, Smith did all his damage with 35 total tackles entirely off the bench.
With such production in a backup role, his opportunities as a junior starter should be ever so much greater. Smith moved into the first unit at last during spring ball and has handled the promotion just fine. Though, he's had plenty of pressure to stay a step ahead of talented and hungry kids also developing at the end positions. For that matter some might have superior skills at an aspect or two of the position.
Thus Smith has found it necessary to become a better-rounded ballplayer. His first two seasons he could afford to specialize as a substitute and pass-rusher. No longer. He has to handle the other half of the offense.
"Oh, I've picked it up a lot in the run game. I'm getting more stout in there." He means mentally, though the body is pretty stout as well. By himself Smith may look lean but that's just the 6-6 frame that the 255 or so pounds are placed on. Stand him beside even the biggest Dog D-linemen and yeah, the sculpting done by State's strength staff shows. Smith definitely looks the part of a long-and-strong defensive end able to snag, bag, and gag a quarterback. Now he only needs prove he can shed blockers and get to the running backs.
So, "I'm working really technique-wise. It's not just run off the ball, sometimes it's read and you're reacting, seeing everything play out and playing it the best way you can."
Which means that after two seasons of relative freedom at the end of the line Smith is applying some patience to play. It is a whole ‘nother mindset for an aggressive guy. "I mean, it is starting to get easier. It started off pretty hard, you're used to just running off the ball and then reacting, trying to see if something is happening. But now it's like you make sure, you know you have ten other guys on the field with you, depending on you not to do the wrong thing."
"It's just learning to watch the ball and the man in front of you…and make sure I don't jump offsides and cost us any yards! Yeah, getting cussed-out and then hearing from somebody!" He means both inside the post-play huddle and then back on the sideline. This is too part of ‘old school' after all.
The difference this fall is how Smith hears such stuff from the new position coach. New to Smith and team anyway, as Turner is more familiar to Mississippi State fans after a previous stint in Starkville. It hasn't taken long to establish a genuine relationship that goes beyond just the job.
"Coach Turner is a pretty nice guy. He's coaching different from what we're used to but it's calmer. He goes over stuff really in detail and I really like that. He helps us know what we need to work on each and every day." Oh yes, and when Turner does have to yell it is all about business with a real goal in mind.
One of which is to have Bulldog fans yelling in delight at the sight of an opposing passer hitting the turf. This is right down Smith's alley already, yet he is not the only hound in the pass-rush pack. Teammates have commented all camp how both Autry and Smith seem to be in a daily duel to collect the most quarterbacks. Now one might think Autry would try to claim seniority; y'know, tell his younger teammate to respect his elder, allow him first shot at the quarterback since Smith has more years to make such plays. Suuuure…
"Nah, we don't think like that!" Smith said. "We just think about competing and making each other better each and every rep." An even larger point this preseason is that these ends, and their backups, know their place in the overall defensive picture. Sure, a 4-3 base gives the D-ends more opportunities to attack quarterbacks.
Yet Turner and coordinator Geoff Collins have much more in their minds about how to put the pressure on and still stay sound against the run. "Everybody has to sacrifice," Smith said. "Sometimes we might have to go inside and force the quarterback out, then the tackles wrap around and get the quarterback. You know, we all work for each other. We work to try to help each other."
Smith also now finds himself in a position to help out those kids who want his job and snaps. Though don't call the true junior an old Dog just yet. "Nah, I'm a young Dog! I'm still a puppy!" One with quite a bite to be sure. So do even-youngsters like Ryan Brown, A.J. Jefferson, Torrey Dale, and of course that couple of new kids. Trent Simpson has already impressed with his awareness of technique and fundamentals.
Then there's the young beast Chris Jones. Having himself been thrown onto the field as a true freshman Smith knows what the hurried transition is like. He reports though that the frosh have adjusted "really well" and are finding their footing. Take touted rookie Jones, a rush end with tackle size.
"He has a great work thing, he comes out with a great attitude and trying to learn. He stays focused and is trying to get better each and every day." Which is still not exactly the same as a live game snap, Smith cautions from his expert perspective. "It's probably going to be a couple of game reps. Practice does a little bit but game experience really changes a lot."
The experience will come in due time. Meanwhile Smith offers his own as a teaching tool with the ends much like 2011 freshman classmate P.J. Jones does with the tackles. And, with themselves.
"We both keep each other motivated, knowing that we came in and played together. We try to keep each other motivated toward the game, ‘we can't let this happen like we did our freshman year, we can't get thrown around' and stuff like that. We've both kind of grown into our own, and it's a progression during college."
Mississippi State's own progression to the season-opener continues, as after Monday off practices resume this afternoon. So does the teaching on the defensive line, and if necessary the yelling, huh Preston?
"I think it's a balance!"