August 27, 2008

Undersized Smith making most of opportunity

It seems things tend to happen quickly for Mike Smith.

Two years ago, Smith was an incoming freshman defensive end looking to eventually earn himself a Blackshirt on Nebraska's defense. Now, he's the Huskers' starting left tackle.

Following a sudden shuffle along the offensive line last week, the sophomore went from a relative no name to a starter that for many came out of the blue. Along with Smith, senior Lydon Murtha moved from left tackle to right, and sophomore Jaivorio Burkes moved from right tackle to left behind Smith.

For Smith, the promotion couldn't have happened soon enough.

"I just thought it was about time because I know I've put in my dues and I've worked hard," Smith said. "I'm just ready to play and ready show Nebraska what I can do."

What makes Smith's jump up the depth chart even more surprising is the fact that he doesn't exactly fit the mold when it comes to Division-I left tackles. At 285 pounds, he is one of the smallest linemen on NU's roster, as the average weight of collegiate tackles ranges well over 300 pounds.

However, Smith appears well on his way in getting there. After an intense summer workout program with strength coach James Dobson, Smith said he's put on 10 pounds of muscle since the end of spring practice, bumping his weight up from 275.

Ideally he said he'd like to get up to 295, and at the rate he's been going so far, that shouldn't be much of an issue.

"It's tough not being as big as (senior guard Matt Slauson) and Murtha, but I just use what I have in my abilities and hopefully it's good enough," Smith said. "In the spring I was just too light. Now I'm in probably the best shape of my life."

Though the offensive line swap came rather unexpectedly, Smith said he's gotten every indication from his coaches that the move is permanent and not temporary. The thought for many at first was that Smith would hold the starting job until Burkes returned to playing shape after missing most of fall camp with high blood pressure, where he would then take over the starting role.

According to his coaches, though, Smith wasn't suddenly made the starter on senior quarterback Joe Ganz's blindside simply to be a temporary solution.

"He's had a really good camp," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's a good football player and has kind of earned his way a long. We feel good, especially with Jaivorio coming back, we feel like we have four quality tackles. Murtha can play both sides, Jaivorio can play both sides, (Mike Huff) has been at left tackle and (Marcel Jones) at our right. We feel good about our depth there."

Because of his size, or lack thereof, Smith has had to take a different approach to playing left tackle than most. Instead of using his weight to control defensive ends and linebackers rushing off the corner, Smith utilizes his quickness and technique.

From the sound of things, he's been able to do it quite well, too.

"I've really seen Smith rise up to the occasion there," Slauson said. "He's a real athletic guy, really fast. He's an all-around good player… When I was out on the edge I liked to throw my weight around a little bit. If I was 285, I don't think I would've done anything.

"He's a good player, he's really fast with great hands and great feet. I think being a little light plays to his strengths. He may not be the biggest and strongest guy, but he has great feet, so he can recover really good."

Slauson added that he's seen Smith have good success against Nebraska's defensive ends in practice, as he's been able to keep guys like seniors Zach Potter and Clayton Sievers relatively in check.

Smith pointed to last year's win over Kansas State, when he saw his most extensive playing time. In that game, the Huskers utilized his speed and quickness by pulling him out into the open field on running plays and screen passes. Judging from the 73 points they put up against the Wildcats in that game, the strategy worked fairly well.

However the Huskers decide to use him, Smith is simply thankful for the opportunity. He knows his weight will go up eventually, and in the meantime, he's ready to prove that weight is just a number anyway.

"It's been a change over these past two years, but I think that I'm getting to know my position a lot better" Smith said. "I'm hoping it goes well."

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