Will Smith just wanted a chance to play football for Texas Tech.
He got the opportunity, and in a month’s time made himself into a savior for the Red Raiders’ downtrodden defense. Or some might perceive him as that, at least.
By knocking heads in spring practice and claiming a starting job at middle linebacker, the transfer from an undefeated Riverside (Calif.) City College team inspired hope among Texas Tech followers.
Right or wrong, high expectations sit atop his shoulders before he’s ever played a major-college game. Tech opens the season at 6 p.m. Saturday, hosting Northwestern State.
“It’s a little different,” Smith said. “You do feel more pressure. But other than that, I feel like you just play the same way you’re always going to play. Once you start playing good, it gets contagious and everybody else is going to step their game up, too.”
Smith and converted safety Terrance Bullitt, both juniors, are expected to improve a linebacker unit that suffered growing pains last season. After Smith won a job in February and March workouts, he worked on building up his body over the summer. The 6-foot-3 junior now weighs 230 pounds, about 12 more than when he arrived in January.
He’s also sporting a new jersey number, ditching the No. 50 he had last semester for No. 7 that he expects to wear in games this season. Tech quarterback Seth Doege also wears No. 7, but two players donning the same number is fine by rule as long as they’re not on the field at the same time.
Why No. 7?
“Growing up in California, skill players are always single-digit numbers,” said Smith, who wore No. 14 in high school and at Riverside. “I always wanted to be a single digit, so I was like, ‘Why not do it here?’”
Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman was impressed in the spring not only by the plays Smith made, but by how easy he made learning the defense look.
That put him at a good starting point when preseason camp arrived.
“The big thing for him is he’s been able to focus on technique, because he got a grasp of the defense in spring ball,” Kaufman said. “A lot of times, it takes more than spring for a first-year guy to come in, but he’s done a good job of picking it up. He’s picking up some strength. All we’re working on with him right now is just some technique things.”
If Smith does live up to the expectations surrounding him, it’ll finally be some good luck for the Red Raiders defense. That they have him at all is fortunate. Although Tech signed four players off the 11-0 Riverside team, Smith wasn’t the original target.
“The first guy they brought out here (to Lubbock) was my friend Zaire Anderson, (a Riverside linebacker) who’s at Nebraska now,” Smith said. “They took a look at some other players and happened to put my film on while he was down here, then they offered me that day.”
Smith said Tech coaches watched his highlight video, one that easily contained enough highlights to get recruiters’ attention. He was Riverside’s second-leading tackler last season with 88 stops, but also racked up 13 tackles behind the line, five pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
That’s a stat line the Red Raiders would love to see him repeat.
When Tech coaches discovered Smith, they pulled the rug out from under Nevada, his probable landing spot otherwise.
“They didn’t take it too lightly,” Smith said of the Nevada staff. “They were pretty upset. They tried to get me to miss the plane to come out here. They just wanted me to come there, but it was Big 12. I couldn’t pass that up.”