Jordan Smith wasn’t an All-Big Ten cornerback. He never technically even started a game. But he solidified his hard-working legacy in Happy Valley last season, when he often stepped up when his Nittany Lions needed him most.
Against Ohio State, he stopped the deep ball to James Clark to solidify the 24-21 victory, a historic win at Beaver Stadium. Against Minnesota, one of the season’s turning points, he made his first career interception in the end zone to stop the Gophers from scoring.
Smith, who played in 40 career games at Penn State, is now an assistant dean at Georgetown Preparatory School in Maryland, where he also helps coach. But he’ll never be forgotten for those two plays. So we decided to catch up with him this week as part of “Five Questions” — to ask him about the 2017 team and what he’s taken away from his career.
Q: You were an important part of last season’s team — but I want to ask you about the 2017 team. Over the offseason, Penn State lost both starting defensive ends, a safety, a cornerback and two linebackers. And it’s still the nation’s top defense, in terms of points allowed. Why?
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A: Honestly, it’s — there’s just something about those guys. There really is. You can’t teach it. It’s passion; it’s chemistry. They want to win each and every day. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing against.
That team is the definition of a family and a bond and a brotherhood. The chemistry is just so strong. Those guys absolutely love each other, and you can see it in how much fun they’re having. You can see it within their play. So, honestly, there is just something about that team that you can’t put your finger on. They’re just unique. You don’t find teams like that.
Q: You spent a lot of time with these current players. Who’s one guy that you think doesn’t get enough attention, or doesn’t get enough credit?
A: Christian Campbell — little bro Christian Campbell. That boy is nice. He has so many intangibles. So many. And he just works. That’s the guy that you love being around, the guy that wants to constantly get better. Me and Christian, we were roommates the whole entire season last year, we became very tight and — me just picking his brain a little bit and getting an understanding of his background and what he wants in his life — you learn about so much. And Christian, he wants nothing more and nothing less than success. That’s what Christian is hungry for, and I know he gets a little recognition — but I think Christian, Grant (Haley), Amani (Oruwariye), the whole corner unit, needs to be seen by the whole world. They’re some special guys. Those guys, they got it, man. They really do.
Q: I think I might know the answer to this, Jordan, but maybe you’ll surprise me. What was your favorite-ever Penn State moment?
A: You know what every Penn Stater says: “There’s nothing like the ‘White Out.’” And when you’re a freshman and you walk out that tunnel, I can’t describe it better than saying it’s like when it’s cold outside and you get those chills. It feels like that when you see that White Out. You get those chills, and you’re ready to go. And this past season, that White Out, there was nothing like it.
That was the best Penn State moment for me ever. Ever. Just being in that atmosphere, being so loud you can’t really hear and just celebrating with the team and seeing the team having each other’s backs and doing what no one thought we’d be able to. It was great. There was no better feeling than to do that. That feeling is up there in the record books for me. ... Nothing beats a White Out. I felt great after the interception (against Minnesota), I honestly did. It was amazing. But that atmosphere of the White Out is bonkers. It really is. It’s just crazy. Penn State fans — all 107,000 — there’s no other place in America that competes with that.
Q: You faced some good wideouts in practice and during games. Who was the toughest guy you ever went up against?
A: OK, so the one receiver who was hardest to cover was a Penn State player — Allen Robinson. My entire freshman year, he gave me the business. (laughs) My entire freshman year, he tore me apart, man. I’m sorry, every day in practice, he tore me apart. It made me better. It honestly made me better, and I can’t think him enough for that. I never told him this personally, but he made me better — a better person, a better football player. Because I was like, man, what can I do? How am I going to shut him down? There was nothing I could do.
You think he’s going to run something and then, once he takes off, the routes he can run should minimize. But he went against the whole rulebook. He had different splits. He’d have a wide split and run a comeback. He just defies the rules and the odds.
Q: When former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee, a lot of people wondered how the Nittany Lions’ defense was going to shake out. What were you guys feeling, and how long did it take before Brent Pry showed there wouldn’t be a drop-off?
A: Honestly, I can say it didn’t take long. We knew what we were getting when Coach Pry took over; that’s one heck of a coach right there. And Coach Pry, he’s going to have you ready and lined up to go, ready to play physical and fast. I can honestly say that is how Coach Pry wanted us to play. He wanted us just to just fly around. And it didn’t take any time for us to see that.
We knew what we were getting; we all knew it. And we were ready for it. We were excited for him to take over the defense; we were excited to play for him. Who wouldn’t want to play for him? Coach Shoop was a genius; Coach Shoop was a wicked genius. He knows the game in and out down to the stat. But Coach Pry knows it as well — and Coach Pry, he coaches with a little chip on his shoulder, a little bit of swag.