An Orange Bowl Graduation For Preston Smith

He gets a good look at the venue Tuesday during Mississippi State’s walk-through session. And Wednesday evening, Preston Smith will play for real at Sun Life Stadium. Hopefully, not for the last time, Preston Smith says.

“It feels great to play in a pro stadium. Who knows? I might land in Miami, in the League!”

Or if SLS doesn’t end up as Smith’s new home field, he’ll gladly settle for visits every other season or so. After, that is, he and his Mississippi State teammates take care of a final item of college football business. Tuesday is the final Bulldog tune-up for a New Years Eve date with Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Making one final college impression on pro scouts has to take back-seat to Smith’s immediate ambition, of celebrating one final victory in Maroon and White. After nine practices on the Starkville campus, and five more sessions in Miami, senior Smith figures he is as prepared as possible.

And, that Coach Dan Mullen has done everything possible to get his Dogs ready.

“He wants us to have a comfortable feel, be confident in what we do,” Smith said. “Believe in the gameplan, work hard and execute our assignment.”

Ahhh, yes. Assignment. The word is heard from first day of spring training all the way through the regular season finale. But ever since #7 Mississippi State learned the Orange Bowl opponent would be #12 Georgia Tech, assignment has assumed all-important priority with the Bulldog defense.

Because, Mississippi State hasn’t faced a pure triple-option offense since, well, since the last time a Bulldog squad played Georgia Tech. Back in 2009 to be exact, Mullen’s first season, with the more experienced Yellow Jackets winning 42-21 at Scott Field.

Smith wasn’t part of that Dog defense or even roster. He wouldn’t sign-on with Mullen’s program until February 2011. Despite being a low-profile recruit, though, the (irony alert) Stone Mountain, Ga., native was activated as a true freshman and has worked his way up from raw rookie to all-star senior. Literally that is; the first-team All-SEC lineman will play in the Senior Bowl for the scouts.

Where, needless to note, Smith won’t see a triple-option. Much less so in the NFL. So Wednesday in Miami is his one and only chance to truly see how quickly he, and of course the whole Dog defense, can handle such a different scheme.

Except scheme is sorta secondary per Smith. Sure, they have to learn assignments and keys and such. The first requirement though, and especially for the defensive linemen and maybe most of all the ends is…stay put. Stay calm. Just stay controlled.

And this, Smith said, is the hardest assignment of all for ultra-aggressive guys.

“Yeah, it’s going to be hard to be disciplined. Because everybody always wants to make plays. So when you see somebody with the ball you automatically want to take him. And he might end up pitching it. You’ve got to play your keys.”

“So it’s going to be kind of hard because we’re really an aggressive defense, up front especially. Our front seven is very aggressive and we want to try to make plays and be physical with the other team. So we have just got to be disciplined. Not too conservative, but a little conservative.”

If temptation to take off for that darned football isn’t tough enough to resist…there is the constant frustration of Georgia Tech blocking. Yellow Jacket linemen have the size to go man-on-man; they just take a different and aggravating angle on things.

“Mannnn, yes. I think they cut block every play, about every play!” And defensive end Smith, at 6-4 with long stride and long arms, is exactly the sort of tall timber Tech tries to take down to create an edge.

So Smith and line-mates know what is coming and from where. It’s just getting where the ball is going that will be the trick Dogs must learn, fast. Smith said his ‘study’ began even before the Orange Bowl matchup was announced. IE, watching Tech take Florida State almost to the wire in the ACC title game.

“We just know we’re going to have to fit it up and stay, play our football that we know we can and just keep on playing hard throughout the game and come out with a win.”

Victory will make for a complete week in the south Florida sun, as well as under the Miami lights for that matter. Mullen means business about this bowl to be sure. At the same time, the coach has let his 2014 team enjoy the rewards won in a record-setting regular season.

Especially this group of fourth-season seniors, which has won 32 games and two of their three bowl contests. If these Bulldogs walk off the field victors, they will have the second-most wins by any four-year group in MSU history.

Meaning, everything is good for senior Smith about the trip. “Go around and just have fun, enjoy this bowl experience. This is my last one with the team, have fun with my teammates, be safe and hopefully go out and get a win.”

Then, and only then, he can turn attention to the Senior Bowl and spring pro days. Much as he hopes to be playing on a NFL field next fall, that can’t distract Smith from this unique ‘graduation ceremony’ in Miami.

“I really just want to go out there and put on a great game for this crowd that is going to be down there, all the fans that are going to travel to see it. And hopefully some NFL scouts will be there to see the game, maybe, maybe not! But I’m just going to go out there and play hard for my team and end the season on a great note.”


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