College football: Smith played in Cotton Bowl

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 9, 2012

By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — Arkansas sophomore defensive end Chris Smith was anxious to do something noteworthy in Friday’s Cotton Bowl, but a 15-yard flag for roughing the passer with three minutes left to play wasn’t quite what he had in mind.
Smith, a two-time All-State player at West Rowan, thought his night might be over — but it wasn’t.
“Coach (Bobby) Petrino was not happy with me,” Smith admitted sheepishly. “But after the coaches told me I had to be smarter, they put me right back in there.”
Smith, who was showered with Cotton Bowl gifts that included a watch and ipad 2, has spent two years learning from the Razorbacks’ senior defensive end Jake Bequette, an Academic All-American. Given another chance, Smith started putting those lessons to proper use.
“Jake tells me that if I stay low and come off the ball no one can stop me,” the 6-foot-3, 251-pound Smith said.
Kansas State had first-and-10 at the Arkansas 37, but Smith stayed low, came off the ball, and no one stopped him. He sacked elusive quarterback Collin Klein, who rushed for 27 touchdowns this season.
Kansas State’s second-and-15 play brought exactly the same result. Smith sacked Klein again for another 5-yard loss to bring up third-and-20. After a third-down scramble and a desperate interception on fourth down, Arkansas’ 29-16 win was official.
Those final minutes will be something for Smith to brag to his grandchildren about. Not everyone racks up back-to-back sacks in a Cotton Bowl.
“It was a great feeling, really it was,” Smith said. “But I realize their offensive line was worn down at that point in the game. I was fresh — they were tired. I just took advantage of the opportunity I had.”
Modesty could be Smith’s middle name, but those twin sacks should be a fine springboard for him moving forward. Starting this spring, he’ll be expected not just to be tutored by Bequette, who projects to be in the NFL next season, but to step into the large cleats he leaves behind.
“Jake and Tenarius Wright (a junior who starts at the other defensive end) have taken me under their wing since I got here,” Smith said. “I’ve tried to learn something every day, and I feel like I’ve gotten better every day. Right now, I can’t wait for spring ball. When we were leaving the field after the Cotton Bowl, Jake stopped me and told me, ‘It’s your time now, Chris. Your time is now.’ ”
Smith’s first love was actually basketball, and it was West Rowan hoops coach Mike Gurley who nicknamed the perpetually smiling, wide-shouldered youngster “Hercules.”
Whenever Smith shed his warmups for an opening tip, he revealed one of the more impressive physiques ever to grace the hardwood in Rowan County. Women fainted and the jaws of opponents dropped several feet.
Smith could squeeze the air right out of a basketball, but shots outside 5 feet proved an adventure. He played the sport throughout high school, but it was obvious when he made his football debut for coach Scott Young as a soph where his future would be.
West’s 3A state titles in 2008 and 2009 had K.P. Parks spearheading the offense and Smith dominating for the defense. Both won MVP awards in the 2009 Shrine Bowl Game.
Smith’s college choices spanned a geographical area from East Carolina to Arizona, but he stuck with an early verbal commitment to Arkansas. He was considered a major coup for the Razorbacks, one of the serious studs in their recruiting class.
Smith’s playing time was limited to six games as a freshman. While it picked up in 2011, he was still in a reserve role, albeit behind one of the team’s marquee guys.
“Freshman year was all a learning experience,” Smith said. “This year I played a lot more and had 41/2 sacks. Now I want to get my weight up to 260 for next season, and I really love our new defensive coordinator (Paul Haynes who debuted in the Cotton Bowl). Coaches are talking to me about standing up and being a leader for all the young guys that are coming in.”
Smith has never regretted his college choice. The homesickness is long gone, and while he still peppers his interviews with “Yes, sirs” and “No, sirs,” he’s a man now — a man ready to claim a starting job in what is arguably the best college football league there’s ever been. Sixth-ranked Arkansas’ only losses in an 11-2 season were to SEC rivals Alabama and LSU, who will grapple for the national championship.
There were some Saturdays this fall when Smith gathered his new buddies in front of a television screen to watch Parks play for Virginia. In Charlottesville, Parks watched Smith play at every opportunity.
“We always stay in touch with each other — I always tell K.P. he did perfect, and he always lets me know what I can do better,” Smith said with a hardy laugh.
Arkansas conducts speed training drills each winter, and Smith sprinted a blazing 4.48 40-yard dash last spring. He has the necessary tools to play for a long time. His quest now is for knowledge and consistency.
“Time is moving by real fast,” he said. “But for K.P. and me, the goal has always been to play on Sundays.”