Field-level reviews gave at least some impression Smith helped that defender a bit, though interference was ruled—if obviously not accepted—the other way around. Still Smith has taken his share of teasing about pushing-off. "That's what people were telling me. I didn't feel like I did but when I saw the replay it kind of looked like I did. I wouldn't have noticed, I was focused on the ball!"
Focus has been a challenge for Smith in 2008; not because he hasn't been just as intense in practices or games as he was the previous years. But because this senior season has been one of unexpected frustrations both on and off the field. Smith came into the year as State's headline receiver, having caught 33 balls for 510 yards as a junior. Through ten '08 games he has 15 grabs and 215 yards. Not shabby by any means, but not up to projections.
"It's been a struggle," Smith said. "I mean, it's been a struggle for everybody, we haven't been winning." And this has grated on the senior much more than his personal challenges, which have been many according to Coach Sylvester Croom.
"He's had some things to deal with over the course of the year, and it's been obvious he hasn't had the kind of season we anticipated and he anticipated." It began as far back as early August when Smith overheated one day in camp, then went through some illnesses. Then in the opening game he had a 79-yard reverse-run gain negated by cohort Co-Eric Riley's hold; and in the third quarter he muffed a punt that set up Louisiana Tech's go-ahead touchdown. It was a lot to handle even for an old Dog. "Bottom line I think he lost his confidence," Croom said.
Getting it back hasn't been easy either. "It's been a lot of stuff, I mean stuff back home that I don't talk about," Smith said. "Just a lot of little stuff and it builds up, it takes a toll on you. But I have to look past all that and move on." Which he has. Croom noted that in recent weeks Smith has been practicing much better, moving faster. Smith's offers a simple explanation.
"I mean, when I'm playing I feel free. I just feel like I let everything go and play." It's showing now in his increased opportunities and production, with six catches and 71 yards the last two SEC contests. Ironically, Smith's struggles were compounded by the natural defensive attention he drew as the top Dog wideout on '07 scouting tapes…yet this served the first half of the season to open up room and snaps for other wideouts, such as Brandon McRae who has emerged as the #1 target. McRae appreciates what his teammate has done more than anyone, too.
"I was the happiest person for him," McRae said. "I was jumping up-and-down, I was the first one to greet him on the sideline and tell him good job."
Further irony is that now McRae is coverage-objective #1 for Bulldog opponents, Smith should be getting more turns to catch the balls he did before everyone was hounding his every step. "That's how it works!" Smith grinned. "We all just go out there and our job and try to do our assignment and make plays."
Of course Smith was THE play-maker the last time Mississippi State played Arkansas. On that day in Little Rock he caught ten balls for 208 yards, the gains tying for second-best day ever by a Bulldog receiver. But asked what he recalls most from what should have been his greatest individual outing, well, he has a different opinion.
"We lost. That's all I remember. I don't care nothing about stats or none of that. I'm just trying to win, that's it." Which is why in this rematch with the Razorbacks, Smith won't be counting catches or yards or even scores. Smith wants to win, maybe this game more than any in his college career…because it will be the final appearance at Scott Field. "My last go-round," he said.
"I'll miss this place, man. It's crazy, it went by faster than I expected. Every year Coach always says go out there and play for the seniors because one day you're going to be a senior, you're going to want them to play for you. Now I'm the senior!"
LINING UP THE ‘BACKERS: One upperclassman who will not be participating in Senior Day with his classmates is LB Jamar Chaney, who has asked Mississippi State to apply for a retroactive medical redshirt so he can play in 2009. (See Monday reports.) Croom welcomed Chaney's choice to come back to college and said the process to get NCAA approval of another year—Chaney never redshirted—will start at season's end.
His return will certainly help with experience and leadership on the '09 defense. "It'll be good for our schemes as well," Croom said today. Because Chaney, the starting middle linebacker in 2007 and in this year's opening game before the ankle injury, will go back to an outside spot in spring. He played weak-side linebacker in 2005-06, the job he's likely to return to while junior-to-be K.J. Wright stays at srong-side. "He and K.J. will give us two veteran outside linebackers," Croom said. The return-move is doable not just because OLB is Chaney's natural position, and his best shot at a professional career; but also since the development of some younger talent to fill the middle slot next fall.
Croom was impressed with how true freshman Bo Walters performed at WLB in the Alabama game. "He played extremely well, and for a freshman to go to Alabama in his first start and play the way he played is outstanding." Yet Walters' ideal spot looks to be in the middle, now filled by graduating senior—and converted WLB himself—Dominic Douglas.
"He can pay both positions," Croom said of the rookie. "He's smart enough to call signals and learn both spots. For a freshman to do that is extraordinary." Even so Walters is not being handed the '09 starting job at MLB, because Croom projects a committed junior college player to sign in December—who he could not name but all believe to be Chris White of Gulf Coast CC—to "probably be our starting linebacker, we think he's that good."
Both Karlin Brown and Terrell Johnson have gotten action this season and Croom expect them to continue improving. And redshirted freshman Mike Hunt needs only to keep adding strength and weight in the off-season to factor in. "He can really run, and he's another we think will enter into that group at linebacker." Also, redshirting defensive end Shane McCardell is now being booked to move to linebacker in spring, as a strong-sider. "He's a guy who can back up K.J. He's built a lot like K.J. and runs well. We know he can play that spot now." Linebacker depth and cumulative experience has been much on State's minds this season, even before Chaney went down and forced some moves. Croom doesn't want to ever be in a position again to have to take, say, the best outside rusher and switch him to a more static spot as Douglas has been this year. "And part of your special teams come from your linebackers and defensive ends," Croom said. "That group being stronger and with more size and speed will help."
INJURY UPDATES: DT Jessie Bowman's senior season ended Sunday morning with surgery to repair the torn tendon suffered at Alabama. MLB Dominic Douglas (ankle, groin) did not practice Monday and will likely be held out again today as a precaution. As will S Derek Pegues (concussion). "But they should be ready to go Saturday," Croom said.
"They trying to be easy on me," Douglas said. "I want to come out there but they've got me sitting out today, too. So I'll watch film and try to play the mental part in my head. I've got to show up, it's a couple of nicks and bruises and nothing I can't overcome. It's going to be alright, I just have to get in there and get treatment probably twice a day. And I'll be ready Saturday."
DS Aaron Feld hopes to be ready after a fluke practice injury last week when he took a careless toss from a teammate in the eye. Feld was practicing Monday. His place was taken at Alabama by Anthony Bowles who took care of those duties without issues.
TE Brandon Henderson is more questionable on a bad hamstring he's had for weeks. "He probably will not play unless he is able to practice some this week," Croom said. At Alabama, Nelson Hurst and Kendrick Cook both started at TE (it was freshman Cook's first start) and Austin Wilbanks played. Henderson on the sidelines only aggravates the situation at a problematic position all season.
It's all the more frustrating because the man who would solve many problems there is at practice, but not working as Marcus Green rehabs a groin tear suffered in early September. "We've had to bite our lip on that and let it go," Croom said. "We just can't take the chance it will continue to linger on. He's got to get well because he's very, very valuable to us." Certainly the lack of a ‘speed' tight end like Green has eliminated some of the passing plans for 2008, particularly the down-the-middle throws.
But Croom reminds that these losses show in other more fundamental aspects. "Our staple play, the run off-tackle, has not been there this year." And that's because State simply doesn't have the strength or experience this year at either tight or tackle to consistently execute a most basic play. As Croom said, even when State had no appreciable passing threat or veteran tackles in his early seasons and defenses stacked the front, Jerious Norwood could get to corners with tight ends and fullbacks leading the surge. Not this year, and especially since none of the current backs have the ‘burst' Norwood brought.
"We have not been able to run that play as well this year and that, to me, is like going into a game with one arm tied behind your back. Because that is the centerpiece of what we do, that is our identity."