Big day for Brandon Smith on Saturday.
So big, Penn State coach James Franklin said after the 34-27 victory over Temple, that he told his fill-in middle linebacker to go out and enjoy himself afterward.
“His wife might be upset with me,” the coach said, “but he has earned it.”
Not happening. Smith has only been married for a year – his wife’s name is Andrea – and he is of a deeply spiritual bent.
“I’m just going to spend some time with my family and relax a little,” he said.
It had already been a big enough day for the redshirt junior, who came on when Nyeem Wartman-White injured his right knee with 36 seconds left in the first quarter and provided eight tackles.
This, from a one-time walk-on who in his first three years in the program made exactly one stop while appearing in three games, all last season.
In the meantime he shuttled from linebacker to fullback and back again. He hit the books; carrying a 3.77 GPA into the summer semester, and intends to go to medical school. And in Franklin’s words he tries to “be the best teammate he can possibly be.”
He was something more than that Saturday.
“This is not big to him,” safety Marcus Allen said. “He was born for this.”
Smith doesn’t know about that.
“It’s been a long road,” he said.
And while he relished the opportunity, he added, “You never want it to happen like that.”
Penn State, which provides little illumination when it comes to injuries, was without starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda for the second straight week. He has a cast on his left hand. Outside linebacker Brandon Belll also missed the game, as he was on crutches, and defensive end Evan Schwan, cornerback Grant Haley and wide receiver Saeed Blacknall sat out with unspecified physical woes.
Then Wartman-White crumpled to the turf, the second year in a row he has suffered a knee injury against Temple. In 2015 he blew out his left one while playing on the punt team in a 27-10 loss to the Owls in the opener, ending his season.
This time he was injured while on the punt-return team, though as Franklin pointed out, the Lions were in a “punt-safe” situation – i.e., they left their defense on the field in the event the Owls ran a fake on fourth-and-one from their own 34.
Which left the Lions with Smith.
“He’s a guy that I’ve always looked up to and tried to follow, because his work ethic is unbelievable,” defensive tackle Parker Cothren said. “He’s always ready to go.”
Smith, a native of nearby Lewisburg, gave some thought to going to Penn, or perhaps Princeton, out of high school. But his heart drew him to Happy Valley, and to an ill-defined role.
He started out as a linebacker, was moved to fullback by former coach Bill O’Brien, then moved back to defense. While he appeared on special teams in the Lions’ first two games this season, he was not credited with a tackle before Saturday.
But with Cabinda down his role figured to increase against the Owls.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I was just preparing mentally and physically for the game, because you never know what’s going to happen, and you have to be ready to go if your number’s called.”
When it was, he admittedly played “a little slow” his first series on the field. He picked it up from there. Wasn’t too long, he said, before “11 guys were playing together.”
Still, the Lions were hanging on for dear life at the end. Besides Wartman, Allen and the other safety, Malik Golden, missed time with injuries. So too did star running back Saquon Barkley.
All of them returned, but the victory wasn’t secure until cornerback John Reid intercepted Owls quarterback Phillip Walker with 25 seconds left.
In the locker room a little while later, Franklin asked Smith to break down the team’s final huddle of the day.
“I was just a little emotional, just a little overwhelmed by all the support of 120 guys or so, just being there for me and rooting me on,” he said. “I just broke it down on ‘family,’ because we’re with these guys more than our actual families.”
And now here he was, at the head of the table. Big day indeed.