In this Bulldog’s case though the liking is not merely based on images. Preston Smith has seen the reality of southeastern-most Florida before and can’t wait to make a return trip.
“I’ve been to Miami one time, on spring break, and I really loved the atmosphere. It’s one of those place you wish you stayed longer.”
Smith and teammates have a nice long stay in store of course, when #7-ranked Mississippi State reports to the Orange Bowl on December 26. There are worse day-late Christmas presents, huh? Of course this is a ‘gift’ the Bulldogs earned with excellent 2014 behavior and their 10-2 regular season record. They get to celebrate in style at one of the true college classics on New Years Eve. In Miami.
For the moment though Coach Dan Mullen’s men are still on campus, beginning the second phase of bowl camp. After five days of what essentially is a pre-spring practice the Bulldogs started intensive preparations for #12 Georgia Tech (10-3). And ‘intense’ is not exaggerating says Smith.
Not after getting some early looks at the Yellow Jackets triple-option offense. It’s a scheme that puts some serious pressures on this Dog defensive end whenever the ball comes to his side. Or, not.
“It’s a lot of trickery going on,” Smith explained. “You’ve just go to disciplined with your eyes, and play your keys. And just play hard and be sound. Just play straight technique and don’t do anything special, they’ll have a big day out of you in their running game.”
Georgia Tech is used to big days on the ground. They average nearly 334 rushing yards each game after all, 5.9 yards netted each rush with 41 touchdowns. Now compare that production to a Bulldog defense which specializes in run-stuffing. State allows just 127 yards, 3.7 per rush, and 11 touchdowns through a dozen games.
Something will give in Miami. And it best not be the Bulldogs says Smith, who has a particularly tough evening in store. Where cameras and fans both focus on linebackers and safeties hurrying to contain the option, the defensive ends draw equally-key matchups against option offenses.
In Smith’s case? “The tackle, or the tight end. But I see they don’t run a lot of tight end formations. So it’s going to be a lot of tackle blocking down, or somebody pulling. Or even just me reading off the quarterback, seeing if he’s going to hand off the drive or try to run the triple option-pitch, try to keep the run inside. You just have got to play disciplined.”
Far, far easier said than executed. The head insists stay on assignment; the heart screams GO GET THE BALL. Smith has watched Tech opponents biting on every sort of deception and seen the results. For that matter he says the Yellow Jackets don’t have to make every play positive. It just takes one defender going for the bait to break something really big.
“Yeah, I see a lot of defensive ends become over-aggressive when they hand off the dive or the quarterback will fake the pitch and run up inside. And as a defensive end I basically have to play disciplined, be smart, don’t make any bad decisions when the quarterback keeps the ball. If he keeps the ball! Because I know they’re going to try to make plays off of mistakes and hopefully hit a home run off the this triple-option offense.”
Smith’s assignments for this unique offense is certainly a change of his 2014 pace. He made his senior-season name going after passers. Smith’s nine sacks were one-quarter of the team’s total, with 15 more hurries credited. Of his 44 total tackles 14.5 went for losses. His knack for the big play showed in other ways, like a pair of early-season interceptions with one returned for touchdown against UAB.
Smith also got a hand on two field goals, one (Southern Miss) returned for a touchdown. He made some SEC history by being chosen league Defensive Lineman of the Week three-straight games to begin the schedule; at the end of it? He was chosen All-Conference.
“I’m really happy about being selected on the All-SEC team, to show how much hard work the team has put in besides myself. Without the team I wouldn’t have got that accolade, this great season we’ve had and all the work we’ve been putting in finally paying off. And me getting accolades shows how hard I’ve been playing, how many plays I’ve been making along with my teammates.”
Thing is though, in their last time-out the Bulldogs didn’t make enough plays, on any side of the ball or line. The schedule-ending defeat did not derail Mississippi State’s season. They take top-ten status into post-season with every opportunity for the highest final ranking in program history. Not to mention the most victories ever by a Bulldog team.
Still, there’s a lingering sense of dissatisfaction over what might have been. Per Smith, this feeling has been put to positive use in bowl preparations by both seniors about to play their final college game, and underclassmen setting stages for 2015.
“We’re really looking forward, just coming out each and every day and practicing hard, like we never played the Egg Bowl. Even though we lost everybody remembers, it’s nothing to forget. But we know we have to put that game past us and make the next game our best game.”
And hey, no better time and place to be the best than in the Magic City, right? Speaking of such…would Smith care to share any experiences from that spring break trip back in the day?
“Oh, no. What happens in Miami stays in Miami.”