Penn State football: Smith growing into crucial role protecting his teammates on the field

tjohnson@centredaily.comSeptember 14, 2013 

A barrel-chested, bicep-heavy security guard stood watch beside a black curtain that divided the Sheraton Hotel lobby and a vast ballroom where the first team dinner awaited Penn State players on the eve of the season-opener against Syracuse.

The man, all 6-foot-1, 230 pounds jammed into a fluorescent yellow polo shirt with S-E-C-U-R-I-T-Y embroidered over the left pectoral, was intent on keeping hotel regulars from slipping under the curtain to his left. Arms crossed with veins bulging, the man only needed to shake his head side-to-side when a normal guest tried to access the elevator to his right. It was reserved for Penn State staff and players for the time being. And as players, many of similar size, shuttled up and down the elevator to drop backpacks in their rooms before dinner, the man never budged. His lips, pursed tightly and pulled back and down in a scowl, never flinched. His intense glare never wavered.

Until Donovan Smith stepped off the elevator.

The boss of security was suddenly looking up at another man for the first time all day. His arms dropped to his sides and his don’t-mess-with-me expression melted into a sheepish grin as the 6-foot-5, almost 330-pound Smith looked down at him.

Luckily Smith — Penn State’s starting left tackle — had the credentials to enter. He’s the “Boss Hog” and hogs need to eat. The next afternoon, Smith would handle a job similar to the security guard he unknowingly intimidated.

Smith handles security for the Penn State football team. Along with his teammates along the offensive line, Smith is the first line of defense and a bulldozer for the skill position teammates behind him.

But Smith has a critical role. He’s Christian Hackenberg’s personal protector.

As the left tackle, Smith protects the right-handed Hackenberg’s blindside. He’s there to repel any threat, thwart any attempt on the true freshman quarterback’s health. Should a defender slip past Smith? He shudders to think of the consequence of a direct hit.

He’ll do whatever is required to make sure Hackenberg is still standing after each play and remains upright when UCF guns for the first-year quarterback at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

It’s a job Smith takes seriously.

“I am his bodyguard in a sense,” Smith said told the Centre Daily Times. “His life is in my hands, pretty much, and his health and the football team’s health are in my hands. It makes it that much better to go out there and block.”

So far this season, Smith has performed well. Hackenberg has been sacked six times but none of those have been of the devastating variety — from the blindside on an unsuspecting quarterback who isn’t able to curl up or brace himself for impact.

Hackenberg’s had time to throw more often than not, and is completing 70 percent of his passes. Last week, he set a record for Penn State true freshmen quarterbacks with 311 passing yards. And he’s been thankful for the Hogs.

“He comes into the hotel room every night before he goes to sleep and talks to me,” Smith said. “He does that for the whole offensive line. Definitely, for us as an offensive line, we feel appreciated in a sense. He knows without us, he couldn’t go back there and do what he does.”

For his efforts against Syracuse, Smith earned the title “Boss Hog” from offensive line coach Mac McWhorter based on his physical play that bordered on nasty. He helped knock blitzing linebackers off course and shoved defensive ends off balance. It’s been a promising beginning for Smith, who started out last season a bit shaky in his first extended action.

Smith earned the starting left tackle spot out of camp and went to work protecting Matt McGloin. A sprained ankle suffered against Virginia forced him to the sideline the next few games and limited his mobility over the next few weeks.

“I think he’s a lot more consistent this year,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a big guy ... who’s very nimble and very athletic. He’s a smart guy and an instinctive player, too. So he’s a guy that has done a nice job for us. Coming into this year, he’s another guy that I think has taken his game to the next level. He’s really improved.”

Smith has proven himself as a quick learner who gets better with each game. That doesn’t bode well for opposing defenders looking to rattle Hackenberg by roughing him up.

After his sophomore season at Owings Mills High in Owings Mills, Md., Smith helped establish an impenetrable pocket for his quarterbacks. He didn’t give up a sack over his last two years of high school. By the time he left his family’s home in 2011, Smith, who played at around 265 pounds as a senior, had demonstrated crafty footwork and athleticism usually reserved for smaller players.

His athletic abilities weren’t inhibited despite his mammoth frame and earned him at least 15 offers from FBS schools. He visited Maryland, Michigan State, North Carolina State and UCLA before committing to the Nittany Lions in October 2010.

“He came in here and almost played as a freshman and ended up getting redshirted,” junior guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “He’s a terrific athlete. He’s a big kid, he’s got great size, great strength. And he’s someone I love playing next to at left guard, having him next to me as my left tackle.”

Smith’s recruitment was opened back up when the NCAA hit Penn State with unprecedented sanctions last summer. A waiver allowed players to transfer without having to sit out a year per usual NCAA rules. Although it has since expired, Smith was coveted by nearly half of all FBS teams. O’Brien said earlier this season Smith got 50 scholarship offers to transfer.

But Smith said no to all of them. His teammates were thankful.

Bill Belton called Smith a “running back’s dream” to run behind and Allen Robinson has reaped the fruits of Smith’s blocking as a receiver. After all, it’s hard to catch passes when a quarterback is getting banged around.

Smith likes to joke with Belton and Robinson, two of his closest friends on the team, that he’s just as athletic as they are.

“In my mind ... I’m a skill guy trapped in a big guy’s body,” Smith said. “I just go through things and try to do things as nimble as them in terms of being light on my feet and quick and moving well and working on your hips and explosion.”

Working on those attributes helped separate him from other linemen in high school.

Smith’s uncle, George Smith, who helped raise Donovan and his twin sister, Ebony, was adamant that Smith focus on football when major college scouts came to observe him. Although Smith wanted to play basketball, his uncle insisted he stick with football out of fear his size could be a detriment on the hardwood and lead to a knee injury or ankle ailment.

Instead, Smith spent the offseasons working with family friend Orson Killikelly, who designed a training regimen for Smith that was heavy on footwork drills. The two worked together five days a week. Smith ran hills, pulled weighted sleds and worked on his foot speed running through ladders.

Killikelly, who is also the family barber, also had a recommended menu for Smith .

“After his workout, when he went home it was pasta and chicken,” Killikelly said. “Before he went to the gym, it was a double chicken sandwich and some protein mixed with some maize, which is carbohydrates, and he had the frame to put the weight on.”

But Killikelly couldn’t teach aggression. And he didn’t need to.

A temper came naturally to Smith, who refers to himself as “the baby” in the family. He was born just minutes after his twin sister, and spent his early childhood naturally being picked on by older siblings, including two other sisters, Tamika and Danielle Thomas, and older brother Dwayne Thomas.

Smith, who’s now sporting a closely-cropped beard that hides his baby face, learned to harness his temper on the football field.

“It’s just a switch you need to switch on,” Smith said. “My brother, he thinks he can still beat me up. That’s not the case.”

Added his uncle:

“His older brother, Dwayne, he would mess with him and punch him in the chest and beat him up. And I told him, ‘One day he’s going to come back and get you.’ And now (Donovan’s) about 6-foot-6 and 300-some pounds and Dwayne’s running from him.”

While he looked up to his siblings, too, Smith had a football role model close by he could learn from. Smith’s uncle, whose house was just a few miles from the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills, would show Smith videos of one of the NFL’s premier tackles — Ravens Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Smith, who was born in Hempstead, N.Y., and also considers the Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson as an inspiration, was receptive to Ogden highlights. He calls the Ravens legend his idol.

Smith got to meet Ogden by chance when he and his uncle ran into the NFL tackle in a local supermarket, when Smith was a sophomore in high school.

“I joked with (Ogden),” George Smith said. “I was like, ‘You better keep an eye on (Donovan). Listen to that name. You may hear his name again.’ He was trying to be low-key. He had his hood up, but it was like an oak tree walking through the store. All the guys knew who he was.”

Even then, the still-growing Smith came up past the 6-foot-9 Ogden’s shoulders as the two posed for a picture.

Now, Smith is taller and closer to his goal of becoming one of college football’s best offensive tackles. So his Saturdays will be spent serving his teammates and dishing out punishment to those who try to do his quarterback harm. He’s got teammates — and a program — to protect.

“He talks about, no matter who’s back there, it’s a very important position protecting his blindside,” George Smith said. “But it’s even more important being that both of them are young, whether it was (Tyler) Ferguson or Hackenberg. They’re pretty vital to sustaining the program through the sanctions and he’s got to protect them.”

While Smith sees himself as a guardian, he’s also an imposing man with an appetite for aggression on the gridiron.

One day, he’ll give it all up for another job. But providing safety and security for others will still be a focus in the big man’s life. Smith wants to be an FBI agent or a detective after his football career ends.

Agent Smith has a certain “Matrix” ring to it.

But “Boss Hog” will do for now.

“I go against him when we do our three-down stunts and I work outside,” senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “He’s a very physical player and plays hard all the time. He can be a dominant force this year.”

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