Somewhat hidden behind the shadows of Crum and Brockington last season, Toryan Smith worked on his physical condition as well as his knowledge of the position. However, Smith also knows that although both veteran linebackers may have kept him on the sidelines, he owes much of his progress and development to them.
"The whole time I've been here, for the whole two and a half years, or whatnot, they've really taught me how to take care of myself as one of the guys and to be a leader on and off the field," Smith said of his tenure under Brockington and Crum.
Smith has remained patient throughout the whole process, realizing that his time would come.
"It would be a lot different if it was a younger guy was to be ahead of me," Smith said. "But it was two older guys. And last year, with the fifth-year seniors, who are probably going to get a chance in the NFL, so I just feel like I just had to wait my time, basically."
Don't let his patience fool you. Smith was bothered just as bad as anyone that he wasn't on the field.
"Without a doubt," was Smith's response to whether or not he was frustrated on the sidelines. "I sat back last year and wasn't happy. To be honest, I don't know anybody that was happy around here. Looking back at the big picture, I felt like I should've been able to make more things happen. Obviously that wasn't the case, so I've got to do what I've got to do."
As a result, a sense of hunger has emerged within Smith, leading to his intense off-season regiment that has helped him get back into playing shape, both mentally and physically. What lies ahead for Smith? If you ask him, the opportunity is clear to become the starter heading into the spring.
"Oh, definitely. I feel like the eggs are in my basket," Smith said of his chance to become a regular contributor. "I just got to make something happen."
Irish head coach Charlie Weis mentioned that Smith has had opportunities in the past to get on the field, but wasn't able to take full advantage of them partly because of the more experienced players ahead of him in the depth chart. Now, the context is completely different. Smith has been studying the defensive schemes of the 3-4 defense that was installed by defensive coordinator Corwin Brown throughout the off-season, and hopes that the effort will pay off in the fall.
"This off-season I've really been trying to get my body in shape," Smith said. "Most of it was more so a mental thing. Just learning schemes and just kind of becoming more of a player and learn about offenses and what they're called. Just try to get myself prepared mentally to play."
In terms of learning the defense, Smith has noticed some slight changes with the arrival of linebackers coach Jon Tenuta. Although much of what Corwin Brown has implemented throughout the past season will remain, Tenuta's presence has brought a greater degree of aggressiveness from the linebacking corps. Smith's style of persistent mobile pursuit of the ball carrier fits well with the new, forceful approach Tenuta hopes to bring.
"What coach Tenuta is doing, the stuff he's putting in, we're running a lot of the same stuff we've been doing, but he's tweaked it, obviously," Smith said. "Basically, I'm just running and trying to hit and trying to make things happen. Instead of sitting back and staying in one place, I'm moving around, and being flexible. There's a little more margin for error because I get to play fast and get to run."
To see if that fits in line with Tenuta's defensive philosophy, all you have to do is listen to the former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator speak about his strategy.
"I'm just going to be an aggressive, ball-hawking defense," Tenuta said. "That's basically what's always been my philosophy. I'm just going to be aggressive. Like I said, I don't like offenses dictating me, I'm going to try to dictate them if possible."
Does it seem like a match made in heaven? Maybe that's a stretch, but at least on paper, it would appear as though Smith's style fits right into Tenuta's ideal qualities in a linebacker. However, Smith must make his presence felt in the spring, and separate himself as one of the top contenders for the second middle linebacker spot. Coach Tenuta is deadest on one thing — playing the best players per situation.
"I think right now what you have to do is you've got to make sure that you're getting the 11 best guys by situation on the field," Tenuta said. I think that you have to make sure that they understand the mentality aspect of being aggressive. I think that they're going to make some mistakes, but to me when you go into spring ball, knowledge number one, fundamentals and effort. If you can accomplish that aspect in an aggressive style defense, you have something to build on."
In terms of Tenuta's first impressions on Smith — so far, so good.
"He coached at Georgia Tech for a number of years," Smith said. "I saw what he did to our offense, and I can remember being on the sideline last year against Georgia Tech and wondering, ‘what were they doing? And I would like to do that' I think that its awesome that he's going to be my coach. We're going to get to cut it loose and make some things happen."
Although Tenuta's strict coaching methods may scare off some players, Smith embraces his new coach's demeanor because of the way it helps motivate and push him to perform better.
"I like that a lot," Smith said. "I need to be pushed everyday. I really don't need laid back and lax or whatever. I need to be pushed, and have my attention called out, because I respond to tough coaching. I need a guy in my face all the time."
As spring practices continue to progress, Smith simply wants to put his pads on and start hitting opposing players once again.
"Oh yeah, I'm ready to get out there," Smith said. "I feel like what I do is, I'm a down-hill kind of guy so I'm not into the shorts and helmets kind of guy. I'm a full pads and full go kind of guy, so that's where I need to be."
If Smith can exhibit just a little more patience like he has in the past, he will certainly get his shot. After the initial depth chart was released, Smith was placed as the first option for the mike linebacker. The only question that remains is, will Smith be ready?
"Oh, yes sir," Smith replied. "I feel like it's my time."