To his teammates, redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Smith — a former walk-on who’s been on campus longer than James Franklin — is a reliable presence and friendly face. The Nittany Lions have gotten to know “Smitty” well over the last five years.
But it took just a few hours for the Scarlet Knights to get acquainted.
Smith made his first start of the season in Saturday’s 35-6 win over Rutgers, racking up 10 tackles (four solo stops). It’s just the second time in his Penn State career that he’s hit double-digit totals — and it may be his last. Smith, normally the backup middle linebacker, started at “Will” in place of Manny Bowen, who missed the game for a violation of team rules.
But the circumstances didn’t make things any less enjoyable for Smith.
“I knew I was going to be playing a little more than I had been,” the shy linebacker said. “I was excited and thankful for the opportunity.”
He wasn’t allotted much time to prepare for said opportunity. Smith was told Wednesday about Bowen’s suspension. He had a couple practices to get adjusted to “the different angles and leverages” that go into playing Will, a position that he worked at in spring camp but since left behind.
Still, while not a regular in the lineup, Smith is an experienced asset on the Nittany Lion defense. He started at Michigan and against Minnesota last season when Penn State was hurting at linebacker.
His teammates were confident in Smith’s ability to fill Bowen’s role.
“I feel really comfortable with Smitty,” senior safety Marcus Allen said. “He’s just a mature person.”
Added senior linebacker Jason Cabinda: “He prepares like a starter. I’m really happy for him.”
Cabinda actually complemented Smith well on Saturday. The middle linebacker’s 11 stops led Penn State. At the end of the third quarter, Smith and Cabinda combined for 20 of Penn State’s 49 tackles (40.8 percent).
“Within the flow of the game, it was allowing them to make a lot of plays,” defensive tackle Curtis Cothran said, “and they were making them.”
Cothran also said it helped essentially having two middle linebackers on the field simultaneously: Their communication skills were put to use against a Rutgers offense that shifted its tight end frequently.
“I was able to echo the calls and anticipate what Jason was going to say because I’m used to making the same calls,” Smith said. “The communication was helpful.”
It showed in the stat sheet, too. Rutgers rattled off 102 yards on its first three drives, but managed only 34 over its next seven series. Smith was settled in and getting familiar with the Scarlet Knights.
He knocked quarterback Giovanni Rescigno out for a one-yard gain on a first-quarter third-and-2 and brought the scrambling quarterback down short of the first-down marker on a third-and-12 in the second stanza.
Those were really his only standout moments. The rest of his tackles were securely bringing running backs Gus Edwards and Robert Martin to the Beaver Stadium grass. Not something the casual fan would boast about, but tackles that add up.
“He really stepped up for us,” Cabinda said. “There’s no surprise there, really.”