Fri Mar 19 07:56pm EDT
Sizing up the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Sophomore Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith.
• Typecasting. At 6'5", Smith has the kind of height and lanky build -- dare I day, the length -- that sometimes makes him look more like a wide receiver, or a least a tight end, than a defensive end, especially when he showed up around 235 pounds as a true freshman. That may be one of the reasons he only earned three stars from Rivals as a recruit, and subsequently redshirted as a true freshman behind veterans Stryker Sulak and Tommy Chavis in 2008. (Only clearing his final academic hurdles after the start of fall practice didn't help, either.)
Smith's athleticism was quickly apparent, though, and his effort both on the scout team and in spring practice earned him unanimous "up-and-comer" status around the program. By the fall, Smith had added 20 pounds to his small forward frame, worked his way into the starting lineup and proceeded to obliterate the hype as an exceptionally quick, Jason Taylor-type pass rusher, turning in a freshman All-American season that established him as one of the most feared edge-rushing terrors in the conference, if not the nation.
• At his best ... Smith can't be accused of racking up impressive numbers against week sisters: Eight of his 11.5 sacks (and 13.5 of 19 total tackles for loss) came against Big 12 offenses, not including a big game against Illinois (1 sack, 3 TFLs) in the season opener. He went on a mini-tear beginning in late October, tallying at least one sack and two tackles for loss in four straight games against Texas (he sacked Colt McCoy twice), Colorado, Baylor and Kansas State; he closed the regular by bringing down "Sod Reesing" for the game-clinching safety against Kansas. If he's free to come after a quarterback sitting in the pocket, few college tackles can deal with his speed one-on-one.
Conference coaches were suitably impressed enough to vote Smith the league's Freshman of the Year -- although not to actually put him on the All-Big 12 team, first or second, an honor they reserved for senior linemate Jaron Baston.
• At his worst ... Smith's size automatically opens him to questions about his ability to hold up against teams willing to run right at him, though Missouri was generally very good against the run until being mercilessly shredded for 385 yards and four touchdowns by Navy's option attack in the bowl game. The more pressing criticism against the Tiger D in general was its consistent failure to stop the pass -- for all his big plays, Smith didn't get much help from his fellow pass rushers, or at least not enough to prevent opposing quarterbacks from slicing the Mizzou secondary to ribbons on a consistent basis. Two of the quarterbacks Smith most terrorized, McCoy and Baylor's Nick Florence, both lit up the Tigers for three touchdown passes apiece in high-scoring wins.
You can't pin the entire defense's failures on Smith, obviously, but Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Iowa State showed he can be shut out, and Texas show that, when all else fails, you can always run play-action towards him, throw screens behind him, or just roll away from him.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Smith told the school paper last year that he kept the text message in his pocket from defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski informing him that he had to sit out the beginning of fall drills in 2008 while the NCAA checked up on Smith's high school transcript: "It was real tough. ... Coming here and sitting out was definitely a big reality check. ... I had the text message saved actually in my phone. I wanted to kind of always be reminded of that moment."
• What to Expect in '10. Double-digit sacks is an extreme order for any rusher, and very, very few players are able to pull it off two years in a row, when offenses are hyper-aware of their presence. (Only three players, TCU's Jerry Hughes, Arizona State's Dexter Davis and Northern Illinois' Larry English, have back-to-back seasons with at least 10 sacks since 2006.) Odds are that Smith's statistical production will fall into the 6-8 sack range, with a dozen or so tackles for loss. His impact on opposing offenses, though, could be immeasurable in forcing more double-teams that free up other rushers as well as misdirection, screens, rollouts and quick passes that help protect the secondary, to say nothing of QB hurries that force bad throws, etc. And unless he's injured or otherwise disappears completely, you can expect his reputation to land him a spot on the All-Big 12 team this time around, and possibly face a major decision re: the draft at the end of the year.