Alabama’s loss was certainly Northern Illinois’ gain in the way of sophomore defensive end Sutton Smith, who is a consensus All-American heading into the Quick Lane Bowl game against Duke Tuesday evening at Ford Field.
Smith was on Alabama’s radar after his sophomore year at Francis Howell High in Saint Charles, Mo., getting high praise from legendary Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban before failing to show his ability after his junior year due to a hand injury that sidelined him from participating in camps.
Now, Smith has become a force at Northern Illinois, leading the nation tackles for loss (28.5) while second in sacks (14).
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound lineman has become the Mid-American Conference’s most dominant defensive player since Khalil Mack of Buffalo back in 2013. Mack was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season with the Raiders.
And, while Northern Illinois — which ranks No. 18 in total defense (328 yards) — has made several trips to Ford Field this decade to play for the MAC championship, this will be Smith’s first time.
“Personally, it’s my first time and the first time for a lot of other guys since we’re such a young team so we really never experienced Detroit, but for the juniors and seniors who have been there, they know a lot about it and say it’s a great atmosphere, a lot of fun so we’re looking forward to it,” Smith said. “It’s going to be an awesome Christmas gift and I’m excited to get there.”
So, how did a player who took a redshirt in 2015, then made just 15 tackles while playing in a backup role last season become such an impact player?
“It comes down to how bad you want it and how much preparation you want to put into it,”Smith said. “For me it was all about learning the whole defense really, knowing what my guy next to me is going to be doing and knowing what the linebackers are going to be doing, too.
“It all comes down to preparation on my part, but then again I had a lot of great influences, played behind some really good football players like Ladell Fleming, Perez Ford and Austin Smaha, guys that just taught me the ropes a little bit on this position and I just took in what they knew and kind of implemented it on what I know on how to play football and it’s worked out well.”
It’s worked out well for Smith and Northern Illinois, but not so much for opponents, especially teams like Western Michigan when Smith picked up a fumble and scored on a 58-yard TD return in a 35-31 comeback win over the Broncos.
In Northern Illinois’ early season 21-17 win at Nebraska, Smith was a one-man wrecking crew. He finished with 31/2 tackles for loss, including two sacks while breaking up a pass.
“I would say my instinctiveness is one of my biggest strengths because I always somehow find myself near the ball, I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, I’m just always near it,” Smith said. “I’m in the frontline of the trenches, so I guess it’s going to be there quite often. I have a knack for the ball and I try to figure out what they’re going to run and how they’re going to run it.”
“I was 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds coming into the season and I had to make an adjustment to it of course, I put on good weight,” Smith said. “It’s been a great experience for me. I have to give a lot of credit to my coaches. Coach (defensive line coach Brett) Diersen was always trying to find new things, making me interested in more things, trying to figure out what is the best way I can play.
“I’ve just had a great support system. We run a 4-3 and we have kind of a hybrid linebacker position and that’s what I am as a rusher and it’s just worked out well.”
Smith was a standout running back coming out of high school, playing just one game his entire prep career on defense, a game in which he came up with 20-plus tackles and getting an offer from Northern Illinois.
“I went there as a running back, but I played one game on defense my entire career, and I had like 22 tackles, like five for loss and that was against a real good high school team, Elder, Ohio, and that’s when I got my first initial offer from NIU,” Smith said.
“Austin Peay was the only other school that offered me. Indiana was close and I was getting other looks, but broke my hand at one of the NIKE combines and it was during the spring. I had to have pins put in my hand and that ruined my opportunity to go to all the big camps, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
“When I visited Alabama for my junior day, I was only one of 10 to meet Coach Saban and talk about my future. They said I reminded them of Vinnie Sunseri who played there. I thought that was cool, and they said, ‘You’re going to come out to ’Bama camp and you’re going to be on the squad we look at very hard,’ and that maybe I’d get a scholarship, but I never had a chance to compete in that camp because of that broken hand.”
Still, everything worked out well for Smith.
“I really wanted to go to NIU from the beginning because they were the first one who stuck their hand out at me and said, ‘Let’s go,’” Smith said. “I didn’t really like the flirting crap the other schools were doing. I knew whatever school offered me I’d give it everything I had and be 100 percent in.”
And, Smith felt like a running back when he returned the fumble for a TD against Western.
“That was a lot of fun,” Smith said. “I haven’t got a chance to touch the ball a whole lot since I play on defense, so when I saw that ball I was giddy-up and going.”
No doubt, Smith will be on his giddy-up in the Quick Lane Bowl, trying to make life miserable for Duke quarterback Daniel Jones.
Quick Lane Bowl
Duke vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Ford Field
Records: Duke 6-6, Northern Illinois 8-4
Line: Duke by 2.5