2012 Football: West Rowan's Smith in Arkansas' starting lineup
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — As you might expect, the Alabama and LSU games are circled on Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith’s calendar.
But so is Jacksonville State. And so is the Louisiana-Monroe game.
Seriously? Louisiana-Monroe? That sounds like a country music band.
“You know what, I’ve got all 12 games circled right now,” Smith said with a deep laugh. “Believe me, nobody here is talking about Alabama because that’s Game 3. No one’s talking about anything except beating Jacksonville State because that one’s first.”
If Arkansas doesn’t beat Jacksonville State there will be an NCAA investigation.
Arkansas, which whipped three top-15 teams last season, is loaded, and Smith knows it.
But he learned some lessons well from Scott Young, his coach during his prep days at West Rowan, and now he’s applying them.
The Falcons never looked ahead, never talked about beating Statesville or Salisbury or West Iredell until business had been taken care of against the lesser teams that also were on the schedule.
Arkansas coaches would be thrilled to know that Smith is excited about every game this year because consistency is exactly what they’re seeking from him.
It was fine for Smith to show hints of greatness as a true freshman or flashes of brilliance as a sophomore, but now he’s a starter.
He’s got a job to do, and he’s being counted on by the coaching staff and his teammates.
“It’s finally my time,” Smith said. “The opportunity is there for me, and I appreciate that opportunity. I know that I’m very blessed to have it.”
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound sociology major, is a walking, talking chunk of granite. He spent two years as the apprentice of Jake Bequette, a third-round draft choice by the New England Patriots last spring.
Arkansas’ other defensive end in 2011, Tenarius Wright, has been shifted to linebacker. That means, without question, that Smith and sophomore Trey Flowers will be the starting defensive ends.
“I started three times last year, and I found out starting was a lot different,” Smith said. “Last year, I usually could watch Jake that first series. He’d come to the sideline and I could ask him what I needed to do against the guys trying to block us. Now Jake’s gone. That makes it harder, but knowing it’s my job going in is pretty exciting.”
Smith was a fabulous prep player. He was twice All-State in North Carolina, a Shrine Bowl MVP and one of the highest-profile players on a dynastic high school team that would win three straight 3A state titles and 46 consecutive games.
A scouting service rated Smith the 13th-best senior in North Carolina, and West Rowan fans felt that was about 11 spots to low.
Smith didn’t redshirt at Arkansas, so he’s already halfway through his college career. He’s been relatively quiet. His numbers as a sophomore were 34 tackles, with six for loss.
But there were two games that reminded folks of Smith’s vast potential. He had six tackles against Alabama, and in the Cotton Bowl win against Kansas State he produced sacks on back-to-back snaps.
“It’s all been about fitting into the system,” Smith said. “When I first got here, I was amazed at how fast things moved. But by the end of last year, it had slowed down a lot.”
Smith has amazing wheels for his size. He has run a 4.48 40-yard dash. He practically oozes talent, but he acknowledges he’s got to get better.
“Everyone in this league is an athlete and everyone is very good physically,” he said. “So excelling at this level comes down to two things — having great technique and having great effort.”
“Effort” is a word Smith hears more frequently from defensive coordinator Paul Haynes than he hears “hello.”
“He preaches doing our jobs with fanatical effort, and we plan to do that,” Smith said. “We’ll be flying around. We’re going to run to the ball.”
With quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and linebacker Alonzo Highsmith Jr. still wearing red and white, Smith doesn’t have to be a vocal leader yet.
“I just want to lead the defensive ends,” he said. “By example and by how I work.”
Arkansas should be one of the nation’s best, but it has the misfortune to be in the SEC West with LSU and Alabama, teams that most project to be even better.
“But it’s not who you play, it’s how you play,” Smith said. “We look at it like we can beat anyone on the schedule if we do our jobs — or lose to anyone if we don’t.”
That’s why he’s got all 12 games circled.