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Gallagher column: Smith enjoyed first season of SEC football

MOUNT ULLA — When we watched Chris Smith dominate from his defensive end position at West Rowan, we considered him larger than life.
Well, believe it or not, he’s larger now.
Smith, who just completed his freshman season for the Arkansas Razorbacks, has gained 20 pounds since arriving in Fayetteville. You thought he was a muscular freak when he played here? Look at him now.
“The funny thing is, I don’t feel 250,” Smith smiled on Sunday afternoon while walking around his old practice field at West Rowan. “I feel faster than I was at 230.”

Everything was faster last fall for the former all-state Falcon.
He began with the big boys, one of the few freshmen Bobby Petrino didn’t redshirt. There were those early practices at 6 a.m. that didn’t end until almost midnight. There was the size difference, where, at times, he looked like a runt beside some of the seniors. He was running onto a field where 80,000 spectators in the bleachers was commonplace.
And what could be faster than spending a week in New Orleans preparing for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl?
“Man, it was crazy,” Smith laughed.

Some wondered if redshirting Smith would have been a better idea. Arkansas was loaded with good defensive ends. He was in a four-man rotation at that position.
“At the beginning of the season I didn’t get the playing time,” Smith said. “As the season went on, the coaches started trusting me more and the playing time went up.”
He made his first collegiate tackle in the season opener against Tennessee Tech. He got his most action against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and UTEP.
Smith was asked if he had any memorable moments and he pointed to the UTEP win.
“I don’t know if it was memorable, though,” he laughed.
Just before halftime, the Miners were on a long drive. On one play, Smith dropped back into coverage.
“The back was leaking out,” Smith recalled, “and the quarterback lobbed it up. The ball hit me right in the hands.”
Smith gave a sheepish grin.
“When I brought it down, it fell off my knee pads,” he said. “The whole 80,000 went ‘Ahhhhh.’ I looked up at the big screen when they played it back and I was so embarrassed. If I had caught it, I would’ve scored. There was nobody there.”
Smith said his teammates playfully cajoled him, but he added, “They said it goes down as a deflection on the stat sheet. One thing about Arkansas, we have great leadership. We’re all brothers.”

It was that camaraderie that helped Smith get through those early days of camp.
“Coach Petrino knows that physically, we can do it,” Smith said. “He’s all about the (mental part). He says the way we beat people is with our mind.”
The arduous camp tested Smith’s mental toughness. There were meetings, practice, lifting, meetings, a walk-through and more meetings. Petrino likes to practice the older players and then have the younger players practice. There were times Smith had four workouts on one day.
“I talked to my mom and said, ‘I don’t feel like I can do this. Is this really for me?’ ” Smith said. “She told me, ‘This is what you wanted.’ So every morning, I’d look at a picture of my family and go out there and do it for them.
“Once you get through the camp, the season is easy,” Smith said.

Smith was practicing on Dec. 11 when West won its third straight state title.
“I talked to Coach (Scott) Young in the morning and got a lot of texts later saying we had won it again. I was so proud of them. The way Coach Young has those guys working, it was no surprise.”
Smith was in on the first two titles and he thought that trend might continue in college. He knew the Razorbacks had the potential to win something big in the SEC. But after a 31-26 loss to Ohio State, Arkansas finished 10-3.
Suiting up and running out of the tunnel into the cavernous Superdome was something he’ll never forget.
“And walking down Bourbon Street on New Year’s Eve was crazy,” Smith said. “New Orleans was kinda like a home game for us. The Hog fans were crazy. It’s a different world down there.”
The SEC won’t be a different world for Smith next year. You can hear the excitement in his voice. He expects one of the Razorback defensive ends to possibly go pro so that means more playing time. By spring practice, he should be at 265 pounds.
“Next year, we’re going back to New Or-leans,” Smith announced. “That’s where the national championship game is.”

Smith said he talked to West defensive line coach Stevie Williams many times during the season and his input was valuable. It also helped that Fayetteville reminded Smith of home.
“The people are all so nice,” he said.
On the field, Smith learned quite a bit from players like Jake Beckett.
“They’ve got my pass rush game better, where next year, it’s going to be a scare,” he said.
Smith said people were treating him like a hero when he was home for the holidays. Fitting, considering a kid from a small rural area got to play in the a conference touted as the best in the country.
He was asked if he realizes the potential ahead of him.
“I’m going to keep working hard every day,” Smith said. “If I have a good season this year and next year, I could possibly be like Nick Fairley or Cam Newton.”
You mean, play in the National Football League?
“I try not to think about it,” Smith smiled. “God gave me talent and I’m going to stretch it as far as it will go.”

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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