“I just have to take it as that’s one chapter closed on my college career,” Smith said. “Now it’s time to take this next step to my next journey.”
Smith’s upcoming step doesn’t look all that long, from Starkville to Mobile. But it is potentially one of the biggest for this Bulldog in his professional ambitions. Smith was selected to play in the 2015 Senior Bowl, on January 24. He is joined for the annual post-season event by teammate and line-mate Kaleb Eulls on the South Roster. Their team will be coached by Gus Bradley and the Jacksonville Jaguars staff.
Two other Bulldogs are preparing for all-star play. Offensive linemen guard Ben Beckwith and center Dillon Day get to line-up beside each other one last time, as part of the East-West Shrine Game on January 17 at Tropicana Field in Tampa.
Actually Mobile isn’t even the first step for Smith. “I’m supposed to be training in Florida,” he said. Which is something of an irony since he and Mississippi State just returned from that state, albeit the southern-most corner where Coach Dan Mullen’s men played in the Orange Bowl classic.
That 2014- and career-ending game wasn’t as enjoyable as the trip itself for any Bulldog. Especially so the defensive team, shredded by Georgia Tech’s aggressive option offense. Smith did what he could from his defensive end position, and in the ‘1A/1B’ rotation that worked so well for two months but sputtered down the season’s stretch.
Still Smith got in on four tackles against the option which very, very rarely ran right in his direction…wisely so given the senior’s first-team All-SEC credentials. The Yellow Jackets went outside his end, or stayed inside it, and left him frustrated at what was happening all around.
“They were just out-scheming us,” the Dog said bluntly. “They had a lot of plays, they capitalized on a lot of our mistakes. They switched up a lot of stuff.” Which took a toll on a defense which lost its coordinator before specific installations of schemes and sets began. Maybe in retrospect Mississippi State did a little better under hastily-revised management than it looked against a unique offense…at least initially.
“We started off knowing what they were doing, and they switched up throughout the game, a lot of blocking and formations,” Smith said. “They did a good job keeping us guessing.”
That’s all in the past now, to be filed under ‘college career’ for Smith. He would likely love a chance to play now for a new coordinator, since Manny Diaz was part of the Mississippi State that recruited him during 2010. The timing didn’t work out for these two.
And despite being activated as a true 2011 freshman, the ’15 timing has turned out right for Smith to make that next step. As the full-time starter on one end he accumulated 48 total tackles and was three-straight weeks the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week. In fact Smith had a marvelous first month with a blocked field goal for touchdown, two interceptions with one of them he scored himself, and the first of what became 9.5 total sacks.
He was able to make a tackle for loss in 12-straight games, including the Orange Bowl. This, despite offenses increasingly avoiding his end of the line, the ultimate SEC compliment. Or maybe it was how a lightly-rated recruit out of Stone Mountain, Ga., earned acknowledgment from conference coaches as the best end in the league? It would have been hard for them not to after constantly sliding protections to Smith’s side, bringing in the tight end or chipping with a back.
“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.”
Well and good to credit his club-mates. The fact is Smith did the heavy work himself, turning into not just an all-conference player but a serious professional prospect. And if the timing of Collins’ exit wasn’t welcome, those spring and summer drills he and line Coach David Turner devised gave Smith more opportunities to become a star.
“We just put a lot of emphasis on getting to the quarterback, putting pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. This allowed Smith to score the 9th-best total sacks for a Mississippi State season since 2005. His 16.5 career sacks are 8th-best in program history.
So yes, more than returned coordinator Diaz will miss having #91 to put in prime position for the next Bulldog defense. Smith will miss it himself though 2014 would be hard to top for him personally.
“It feels great being a senior, having this Cinderella year. A lot of people can’t say they started off 9-0, they were ranked #1 at no point in their career here at Mississippi State besides our senior class and the guys on our team.”
But if things develop as all expect, Smith’s appearance at Ladd-Peeples Stadium (where again ironically he played in September in a win at South Alabama) is just the next step in his career and the first towards a professional future.
“Then if I get invited to the combine I go back and train for that.”