Smith Sees Heated Camp Competition At Ends

The calendar says one thing. The thermometer says something else. Preston Smith likes both. He’s glad to be on the practice field again, and doing it in unbelievably kind conditions. “Yeah, God is looking out for us! It’s not as hot outside in the 80s now, this is the coolest summer going into camp since I’ve been here.”

While climate acolytes scramble for less supernal explanations, Smith and team got to kick off their preseason practicing Thursday with both cool temperatures and hot attitudes. Expectations and ambitions for Bulldog football are outrunning the thermometer after all. Especially for a Mississippi State defense featuring experience, ability, and depth of both.

Defensive end Smith has heard the talk. Likes it even. But talk is cheap and victory isn’t earned with hot air. So…

”Everybody has to be on the same page, everybody has to be focused at the same time on. We can’t have a whole bunch of individuals, we have to work as a team to the team goals.”

Smith is a significant individual in Bulldog goals, though. The true senior is coming off a solid 2013 that produced 44 total tackles, tops among all the defensive linemen; with 2.5 credited sacks and nine more quarterback hurries. He had a team-best six tackles in the Liberty Bowl victory to complete the junior season.

Now Smith goes into his fourth year counted on to provide even more pressure off one end, as well as be an improved run-stopper. He figures these expectations are a compliment…but not a guarantee of taking the first snap on August 30. Coach David Turner and coordinator Geoff Collins haven’t assigned starting jobs to anyone, remember.

”At defensive end, we just have guys competing,” Smith said. A lot of guys including two well-seasoned contenders. True junior Ryan Brown has established his credentials as a reliable run-stopping end and in spring ball worked on upgrading his pass-rushing. Sophomore A.J. Jefferson got his share of snaps in rotation last year; he has rushing-speed and looked to be getting up to SEC-speed against ground games by April.

So while those two teammates initially battle to take the end left open by Denico Autry’s departure, Smith is not taking his own status (12 games, 11 starts last year) for granted on the other. For that matter more Dogs are jumping into this camp competition, Smith pointed out.

”We have guys like John Harris, Torey Dale, Nelson Adams is getting moved out there. A.J., Ryan, any one of us can start in any game and we can all come out and play together and we can mix-and-match and have the same type of chemistry.”

That run-down doesn’t even account for junior college transfer Will Coleman, who may or may not be activated this season; or the freshmen linemen whose specific positions will be settled in the weeks ahead. Smith, who himself played as a true freshman back in 2011, has the authority to advise new Dogs about being ready right now and not assuming anything about redshirting.

Happily, he says they recognized this upon summer arrival. “They were all getting in their playbooks. They learned their plays before camp started and we worked with them on technique before coach has a chance to get ahold of them.”

Good thing they did, too, because the coach Smith refers to is a demanding task-master of Dog d-linemen. Smith arrived at State a year after Turner left for Kentucky, but was here when the coach came back in 2013. Not only did the styles change, so did the intensity and expectations of guys at the point of contact. There was an adjustment process all last year, Smith agreed.

“We all started getting used to each other; he to us as players and we getting used to him as players. Now we know what he expects of a player and a group and what we need to work on now that we have him for a second year.”

Here in his own second year as a first-tier part of the lineup Smith wants to build on 2013’s results in a big way. He’s a prime example of a Bulldog who was playing well on the last day of one season and is taking that momentum into the next. Especially because this is his senior season. The Liberty Bowl was a confidence booster, simply.

“It let me know what I need to work on. It told me any game I just need to come in focused and roll that into the first game and the rest of the games in the season.”

What Smith has worked on foremost of course is controlling the edge in run defense, whether power sets or spread schemes or whatever gets rolled his direction. There’s no room for a one-dimensional Dog these days with so many skilled stoppers around this roster. At the same time Smith isn’t satisfied with how he pursues passers.

Simply, he wants more sacks. So does the entire Dog defense as there were only 20 baggings in 13 games.

“This past off-season and in summer we’d go out and work on pass rushing drills,” reports Smith. “I worked on footwork and focused on trying to become a better pass rusher. Because I want to get my numbers up. Of course sacks aren’t everything but I want to get my numbers up and do what I’ve got to do to help my team. And sacks can really help us on third down to put the defense in better situations.”

Far as the entire team is concerned there can’t be much better situation than they got to experience on first practice day. Coach Dan Mullen had scheduled the initial session for late afternoon to avoid the worst of normal July 31 heat, only to enjoy practically pleasant conditions. Which will continue for another couple of days it seems as local forecasts don’t show 90s until Monday, and barely so even then.

But for anyone taking this as ‘normal’ campus weather in August had best listen to old Dog Smith. Two-a-days are looming, he warns, and an extended stretch of practices on the Vet School field.

“Oooh, the Farm. Nothing but Mississippi heat, and shoulder pads and running around.” Maybe so but still the long forecasts aren’t exactly awful, Preston? “But the work we’re doing, they’re going to make it feel like it’s 97 degrees out there!” he grins.

Hey, that’s all cool, too.

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