CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Andre Smith’s ascension to North Carolina’s starting middle linebacker role has been 20 months in the making.
Logic might suggest there is reason for concern at the center of Gene Chizik’s second defensive unit in Chapel Hill. Gone is veteran signal caller Jeff Schoettmer, a former walk-on that started 38 games during his Tar Heel career. His replacement is a true sophomore, although Smith dismisses the youth tag.
“I feel old,” Smith said on Saturday. “I feel real old, but it’s cool.”
The 6-foot, 240-pounder out of Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Chapel Hill in January 2015, skipping the final semester of his senior year at Trinity Christian Academy. It was a decision that Smith now recommends to all prospective recruits to allow for plenty of time to transition to the college game.
“One of the reasons I graduated early from high school is so I could get into the playbook early,” Smith said. “It was something really important to me because I understand everybody has the ability to do what it takes to get on the field physically. We’re all Division I athletes; we wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t. But it’s the mental aspect that really stops people. So once you get over the hump of knowing the playbook and knowing not just your role, but everyone else’s role around you, you know how you fit in the puzzle.”
While Smith said he was not entirely comfortable with the playbook by the time training camp started last August, the head start allowed him to secure the backup role at middle linebacker in time for the season opener. In UNC’s second game of the season against N.C. A&T, unbeknownst to Smith, the coaching staff decided to test his offseason work by subbing him in for Schoettmer in the first quarter.
Smith responded with a team-high six tackles, drawing postgame praise from head coach Larry Fedora for his preparation. He started three games (at the Sam linebacker spot) and played in all 14 games, tallying 53 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
That amount of playing time was critical in gaining respect from the older guys on the defense, according to Smith.
“I’m only a sophomore,” Smith said. “There are juniors and seniors out there that have to listen to me and what I say. They have to respect me and listen to my commands, so they’ve gained that trust and they have confidence in what I can do and know that I can lead this team.”
Once the calendar flipped to 2016, Chizik and linebackers coach John Papuchis challenged Smith to step up into the leadership void left by Schoettmer and weakside linebacker Shakeel Rashad. While that mental aspect of his game has been a focus ever since, his physical work suffered a setback in late February. After straining his left pectoral muscle while bench pressing, Smith tore the muscle while pulling a tire during Blue Dawn, UNC’s offseason conditioning program.
The partial tear required surgery on March 3, forcing him to miss four months, including spring practice, while rehabbing. Smith said he had not played any type of organization football since the Russell Athletic Bowl in late December until training camp opened on Friday.
“Getting back on the field, that was a big goal,” Smith said. “And getting back into the groove of football… That’s going to be the biggest thing, just knowing that I’m back in the groove of everything, and that I’ve had contact and that I’m confident in my pec and shoulder.”
Being sidelined from the practice field hasn’t limited his efforts to improve his leadership skills. If anything, his absence from the physical allowed him to place more of an emphasis on the mental keys.
“He’s stepped in for Schoett and the defense hasn’t missed a step, really,” junior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “’Dre is vocal. He’s never timid about his calls. He always makes his calls and sticks with it. Communication is a big part of the defense… He’s really been a big vocal leader on and off the field.”
Smith wore No. 56 a season ago, but is now wearing No. 10, which was his number during his junior and senior seasons of high school ball. It was also previously Schoettmer’s jersey number, further helping the transition for fans accustomed to seeing No. 10 calling the plays for the defense.