By all indications, Preston Smith appears to be good at football. Mississippi State’s senior defensive end has won the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award all three times it’s been given in the 2014 season, and he was named Defensive MVP in his last game of 2013 (a Liberty Bowl win over Rice).
“I guess somebody made him mad or something,” teammate and running back Nick Griffin said. “He’s taking it out on everybody.”
So, why is Smith so good? Well, he’s 6’6” with arms longer than that and weighs somewhere between 275-280 pounds. That helps. He’s athletic, again a plus. He’s strong, experienced and confident. All good things. That much we know watching from the stands and on TV.
But it’s one thing to watch him, another to actually try and block him.
I asked MSU offensive lineman Justin Malone what it’s like trying to keep Smith out of the backfield in practice.
“I hate it,” he said shaking his head. “I hate it.”
See, Smith is a bit of a unique case as linemen go. Defensive tackles, Malone says, are going to hit the offensive linemen. He’s prepared for that. Defensive ends are going to try and get around the offensive linemen. He’s prepared for that, too.
“Preston, he could either hit me or run around me,” Malone said. “He can just make me look like a fool if he wants to, if I don’t do what I need to do. It’s a little harder than other guys.”
That’s part of Smith’s strength and why his coaches love having him on the field. He’s an end, but he’s got the skillset to do whatever those calling the plays want him to. He’s not just an edge rusher. As MSU center Dillon Day has learned, MSU will send Smith through the middle of the line, too.
“Being an inside guy like myself,” Day said, “you’re not really used to guys with that much speed. So, when he comes looping in, it’s something you’re not used to, someone being that fast. We’re used to the meatier guys.”
But Smith has the strength to do it, and it shows on tape. LSU left tackle La’el Collins has the unenviable task of blocking Smith when they play this weekend, and he told reporters Tuesday night what he expects.
“He’s a real, real good athlete,” Collins said of Smith. “He has a really big motor. He goes hard. He does a lot of great things to help their defense out. A great football player.”
Not that Collins is scared, a talented player himself, but Smith is more than just a few awards, according to those who have to go against him.
Said Griffin, “He doesn’t look that big until he’s like right up on you, then it’s like, yeah, aw, man.”
While others on MSU’s defensive line were more heralded coming into both their careers and the 2014 season, Smith has been the star of the unit. To this point, he’s had the best first quarter of the season of any defensive lineman in the SEC.
The way Malone tells it, the production isn’t a fluke. If anything, he says, Smith is just going to get better. He does everything so well.
“He’s quick,” Malone said. “He’s technical. He knows his plan, knows what he can do, knows what he’s capable of and he knows how to utilize it. He knows all the things about himself and he’s confident in what he has to do. That confidence is gonna push him over the edge of anybody he has to go against.”