Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith is tied for the national lead in sacks per game.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The first person who nominated Marcus Smith as the next Tim Tebow was Jarvis Jones. He plays linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
About five years ago Urban Meyer wanted Jones to play linebacker for the University of Florida. Meyer asked Jones to give him the name of the best high school quarterback he had ever faced.
"Marcus Smith," said Jones, nominating the guy who played quarterback at a rival high school in Columbus, Ga.
It wasn't long until Smith's father, Marcus Sr., received a call from the Gators' coaching staff. They wanted to see a highlights tape of his son, who had been a dazzling quarterback from the moment he started playing the position as an elementary school kid who idolized Michael Vick.
"They liked what they saw," Dad said.
Apparently so. The next call was to Marcus Jr. from the Big Man himself – Urban Meyer. The head coach wanted him to visit Gainesville. He offered a scholarship to play for the Gators, the hottest program in the game. Officially, Smith would be recruited as an "athlete," a guy who could end up at tight end, linebacker or on the defensive line.
But remember the Florida system. Tebow was also an athlete. Smith would get his shot to play quarterback.
Enough reminiscing. On Saturday Marcus Smith will play his final home game for the University of Louisville football team against Memphis. He has never thrown a pass in a game for the Cardinals and has not taken a snap since the first five days of practice during his freshman season in 2010.
Marcus Smith is a defensive end – one of the best in the country. I've sat next to several NFL general managers in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium this season. They love the way he brushes away blockers like hamburger wrappers, his ability to play sideline-to-sideline and the certainty Smith shows while finishing hits.
But they really love the way Marcus Smith makes quarterbacks squirm, flinch and duck. He is averaging 1.2 sacks per game. Nobody in college football has a better average. Smith has made 15 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That ranks 10th in the country. He's good – and projects to be even better in the NFL as his vibrant 6-foot-3, 252-body continues to mature.
"I want to be great," Smith said. "I really do. I want to strive to be number one in every category that I do.
"I have goals written up in my room. I want to have at least 15 sacks this year. You've got to set your goals high. Even if you don't achieve it, you can get close to it."
Not bad for a guy who was on a fast track to becoming the next Tim Tebow five years ago.
Smith's dream of playing quarterback at Florida ended because coaches sometimes say things in recruiting just to say things in recruiting. Smith never got to Florida because the Gators withdrew their scholarship offer during December of his senior season at Hardaway High School because Smith had not earned the necessary score on his standardized college admission test.
If you're making a list of the best football towns in the South, don't forget Columbus, Ga. Jarvis Jones and Marcus Smith are merely the two latest products. Otis Sistrunk grew up there before landing with the Oakland Raiders. Brentson Buckner, another all-Pro as well as an all-American defensive lineman at Clemson, is a Columbus guy.
So are two other athletes that Marcus Smith, Sr. competed against in high school – Buffalo Bills defensive back Nate Odomes and Chicago White Sox MVP Frank Thomas.
"There's tremendous high school sports in Columbus," Mr. Smith said.
But there wasn't always tremendous recognition for Marcus. He grew up wanting to play for the home-state Bulldogs. Georgia never offered a scholarship. Mr. Smith is an Alabama fan. The Crimson Tide showed no interest. Auburn is the closest BCS university, just 35 miles away. The Tigers wrote. The Tigers never offered.
When Florida cooled in its pursuit, Marcus Smith, Jr. was puzzled – and upset.
"They were a nationally ranked team at the time," Smith said. "They were able to get anybody they wanted. I didn't get the score. They stopped calling. I didn't hear from them. At the time, I was thinking about junior college.
"It's hard to explain. I felt like a lot of schools overlooked me when I was in high school. I flew under the radar a lot, kind of the same thing as now. Not too many people really know about me even in college. That's just what happens. I was hoping I was going to get some more offers, but nobody really wanted to I guess. Coach Strong saw something in me."
What Strong saw was a Louisville football program that needed players at a string of positions – tight end, linebacker, defensive end and quarterback. Strong started pursuing Smith during his transition period while he was still coaching the Florida defense at the Sugar Bowl.
He is one of the first prospects that Strong invited to visit U of L. Smith and his father made the trip. They huddled with Strong at the Hilton Garden Inn on Crittenden Drive. His offer was direct:
Smith would be given a chance to play quarterback. But there would be no fussing if he moved Smith to another position.
That's precisely how it has worked out. Smith practiced with the U of L quarterbacks for less than a week in 2010. He threw hard. He did not throw with enough accuracy. He quickly became bored standing on the sidelines watching. Strong asked if he was ready to try defense. Smith said that he was – and called his father and cleared it with him.
"My dad just said that if I was OK with it, he was OK with it," Marcus Smith said. "He just reminded me that I'd have to buckle up my chinstrap now."
His chinstrap has remained buckled for four seasons. Not only has Smith served as a foundational piece of the formidable defense built by Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, Smith said that he will graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average and a degree in communications next Spring.
"It has really turned out to be the best move Marcus could have made," Mr. Smith said. "It's been wonderful. I give credit to Coach Strong."