Aldon Smith embraces long-awaited opportunity for Missouri football

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
In nine college football games, Aldon Smith has totaled nine sacks. His teammates say his work last year as a redshirt is the reason for his success.

COLUMBIA – On third down, Bowling Green quarterback Tyler Sheehan takes the snap and drops back, moving to his right to look for receivers and avoid pressure.

Missouri's Aldon Smith knows what's next. Smith anticipates where Sheehan will be in the next few seconds, pushing past an offensive lineman to meet the quarterback one-on-one.

Smith accelerates as he breaks free and stretches to grab him below the waist. He throws the quarterback down for an 18-yard loss to the fans' roar, a sound that steadily builds up after Smith gets loose and peaks when Sheehan lands. They sensed this result almost as quickly as Smith did.

Smith hops back up to celebrate with his teammates. It's fourth down. Bowling Green will not score again today.

It is the first time much of the Memorial Stadium crowd has noticed what the redshirt freshman can do. They'll have many more chances. Smith is quickly making an impact. After sitting out his first season with the Tigers, he feels like he's waited plenty long enough.

About a week before Missouri started its two-a-day fall practices for the 2008 season, freshman Aldon Smith found out he wouldn't be participating in them. The NCAA Clearinghouse wanted to verify Smith's eligibility based on his high school academics, after Smith transferred to Raytown High School from the state of Iowa.

While that examination took place, Smith could not play or even practice with the team.

Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski sent Smith a text message informing him of the development and then met with him.

"He just told me what the situation was," Smith said. "I was kind of confused at the time because I didn't know too much about the clearinghouse. He kind of explained the whole thing to me."

By the time the clearinghouse determined he was in good academic standing, the 2008 season loomed near and Smith, having missed the practices, was not ready to play. The coaching staff decided to redshirt him and let him play in 2009.

"It was real tough," he said. "Any athlete's not used to sitting out. And especially, every athlete that probably comes to college was the star at their school, and I mean no star is used to sitting out. So coming here and sitting out was definitely a big reality check."

Aldon Smith's mother, Kembrya Smith, told her son that prayer and perseverance were important to help him get through disappointment.

"That was one of the darkest days of his life," she said. "He decided he was going to tough it out. I can definitely say he's a better person because of that."

Frustrated, Aldon Smith decided quickly he wanted the disappointment to make him better.

"I had the text message saved actually in my phone," he said. He thought having it in his pocket last year would improve his focus.

"I wanted to kind of always be reminded of that moment," he said.

In nine college football games, Aldon Smith has totaled nine sacks. His teammates say his work last year is the primary reason for his success. Running back Derrick Washington says even on the scout team, Aldon Smith made big plays.

"To be honest, I knew Aldon was going to be great," Washington said. "He did it on the scout team, going against the 'one' offense, going against (former Missouri lineman) Colin Brown. He was making those guys look silly."

Missouri defensive lineman Terrell Resonno trained with Aldon Smith during the 2008 season.

"I remember he told me it was motivation," Resonno said. "He said he was not going to let that (disappointment) bring him down."

Aldon Smith saw his year away from games as an opportunity.

"I mean, there's ways you can react if something happens to you," he said. "You can just react in a bad way or in a good way. And a bad way's not going to get you anywhere. I figured that I wanted to be a good player, so I reacted in a better way and just worked hard."

Washington points out that the work ethic Aldon Smith developed hasn't left him.

"He's still working hard today," said Washington on Monday. "He was just in the weight room today. We don't have anything to do on Mondays. He's in the weight room working out. That's just drive."

Aldon Smith could lift weights all he wanted and excel in pass rush drills in practice. But without games, the ability to compete for results was not there.

"I kind of played basketball a lot at the Rec (center)," he said. "(I) tried to keep the competitiveness going that way. A lot of people that were on scout team last year played with me at the Rec."

As Aldon Smith's roommate, senior defensive lineman Brian Coulter senses his competitive nature all the time.

"Man, Aldon is one of the people that (is) competitive in anything that he does, whether it be video games, cooking, who can clean up the best, who dresses the best, who's got the new shoes," Coulter said. "It could be something I'm not even thinking about. And he'll make it as if it's a challenge."

Aldon Smith knows it's true. "I think I might be overly competitive sometimes," he said.

Kembrya Smith said she tried to get her son, who also played basketball in high school, to participate in track. Aldon Smith, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, refused, saying he was too tall.

"If he wasn't going to do well and wasn't going to be the best at it, he wasn't going to try it," she said.

Coulter says that desire enhances Aldon Smith's value to Missouri football.

"Even though he's not a team leader, a lot of coaches ask underclassmen, anybody, to step up and be a vocal leader on the football team," Coulter said. "He doesn't want to lose at whatever he does. When he gets out there, I don't know, something clicks. He's one of those guys that will speak up.

"I think one day, he's going to be a team captain."

Aldon Smith says his attitude improved when he learned he was cleared to play in the future.

"When the clearinghouse declared that I couldn't play or practice, I was at home for a while," he said. "When I figured that I was eligible to come back, I kind of realized that was like a gift, or it was like a blessing from God. I wasn't really mad anymore."

Still a freshman athletically, Aldon Smith thinks he's much more mature than he would have been last year.

"I think my head would be a lot bigger if I came in as a freshman right out of high school … and had some of the success that I'm having now," he said. "Once you're a star in high school, you come in with a big head already. And then if you excel at this level, your head will only get bigger. So last year, it humbled me a lot."

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Aldon Smith has athletic potential comparable to that of defensive tackle Ziggy Hood and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, former Tigers now in the NFL.

"That'd be an achievement, if I could reach that," Aldon Smith said.

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