Smith Hitting Senior Season At Full-Speed

It's an encouraging sign when somebody can jest about serious subjects. Then again, Zach Smith has every right to an upbeat mood these summer days…after a return to his old beating-up form in spring. "I'm good," the safety said. "I went through spring and was hitting people like always. I'm still probably leading with my head a little too much, but you're not going to change that!"

No, because that would be to change not merely how Zach Smith plays this game of football. It would change what he is. Even a couple of diagnosed college concussions and evidence of previous other head-rattles won't force that. Instead this ranking veteran of the Mississippi State defensive secondary will still be himself for his senior season. With, that is, one admitted adjustment.

"I got a new helmet, they put some air in it!" Smith quips.

The air went out of Smith's junior season six games-in, when that series of concussions finally caught up with him. It is worth noting though that despite sitting out five full games, Smith still finished tenth—tenth!—in total tackles for the team's entire season. He got in on 26 stops with 2.5 for losses and one credited sack, along with a couple of forced fumbles.

Only starting strong safety Charles Mitchell and replacement FS Johnathan Banks had more tackles in the secondary, and both played all dozen games. That's a good measure of just what the Bulldog defense lost when Smith was sidelined…perhaps permanently by some pessimistic accounts.

Yet when the Bulldogs lined-up for spring camp there he was. And as soon as the full pads went on, ball carriers and receivers started going down after contact with #42.

"The big test was coming out in spring and seeing how I felt," Smith said. "I haven't had any kind of symptoms. I felt good, cleared-up and flying around and ready to go. I wasn't tentative."

He certainly was effective, albeit most of the time now working with the second safety rotation. He's also in career-best condition with plans to play at 205 by September kickoff. And about the ‘free' safety label? That is gone, too, at least as far as Coach Manny Diaz is concerned. The official two-deep might still display free and a strong positions for media and fan convenience, but the defense's overall coordinator thinks in a different way. Diaz has left and right safeties…and he has a lot of them, with nickel and dime packages included.

Smith for his part approves of the changed approach.

"Because it makes a whole lot of sense. I don't know why anybody has a free and a strong safety, now that he's explained it. If you have a right and a left safety you both know what you're supposed to do, every time. It's really like having double the amount of frees and strongs. We can change in the middle of a game. I can be out there with Charles Mitchell, Charles can be out there with Nickoe Whitley; Wade Bonner can be out there with Dennis Thames. So right and left, it's just a matter of where the ball is placed."

And, whatever particular package Diaz calls for with the combination of safeties Coach Tony Hughes picks. Smith, by the way, got a lot of spring-looks as the dime safety. "They kind of threw me in there, maybe off some of the tape," he figured. The larger point is this revamped staff isn't bound by conventional labels nor positioning, and spring scrimmages were just a hint at what might be in store.

"The fans are going to see a lot of new stuff and it's going to be very exciting to watch," Smith said. "We're not going to sit back and let the offense dictate what we're going to do; we're going to dictate what the offense is going to do, or try to anyway.

"I really enjoy the new defense. It's wide-open, Coach Diaz is very energetic and a great coach. I love his style, putting pressure on people and making the offense uncomfortable. That's my game."

Meanwhile Smith is going to try his Dog-gonedest to play a complete senior season. Though he is justified in wondering why everyone else makes such a big deal of his health. "It's kind of funny, but it gets cleared-up and it's gone. Of course it's serious. I wouldn't miss a game if it wasn't serious. I mean, I played games with torn muscles and barely able to walk, and gut through it.

"So for it to be something where everybody says no, I'm not playing…it's not happening. Not when I've worked my whole life to get to that point. I'm cleared and ready to go and there is no reason for me not to go all-out. I did in the spring, I didn't hold anything back, and it turned out good."

Good for him and the defense that is. Offensive teammates could be excused in wishing Smith had played a little more cautiously; you know, just to take care of himself. Instead Smith took care of them the way he plans to when lined-up against real opposition this final fall. Speaking of which…Smith is one of just seven current Bulldogs who played in the 2007 Liberty Bowl.

"Yeah, I'm old," he agreed. "It's crazy to think about. Me and Wade have stuck together through thick-and-thin since we went to the Liberty Bowl and he was my roommate. Now I've got until the end of December, hopefully January, and it's going to be over with." Naturally Smith intends to cap his college career in winning style, just like what he enjoyed as a true freshman in '07. Like before all those resounding sticks left his own bell ringing a little too loudly for safety.

This only magnifies Smith's motivation to make the senior season count that much more.

"I'm pleased, definitely," he said of his restored active-status. "I've been playing football since I was in first-grade, every single year, and I'd never missed any time in any sport. So it's kind of a maturing process and having to deal with some hard times. I got through it with the help of my brothers on the team and family and friends. So it's in the past."

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