Detroit — Sutton Smith had to have a talk with his dad when Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey switched him from offense to defense. He was completely taken aback by the decision.
"I don't know that he was really happy about the move to defensive end in the beginning," Carey said Thursday at the team's press conference at Ford Field, ahead of Friday's Mid-American Conference championship game. "But the credit has to go to him. You can make a move all you want as a coach, but if he doesn't embrace it the way he did then it doesn't work."
In 2016, his first season with Northern Illinois, Smith was listed as a running back, despite intense deliberation among Carey and his coaching staff to move him to defense.
It didn't take long — that same year — for Carey to get his way, his decision sealed after a play where Smith tracked down and leveled an opposing player who'd recovered a fumble.
"It wasn't that he just went down and tackled him; it was how fast he did it," said Carey, in his sixth season as the Northern Illinois head coach. "And we had a need for a pass rusher."
At first, Smith was placed at linebacker, but Carey still wasn't satisfied with that, so he took it upon himself — without consulting his staff this time — to make Smith a defensive end, where he's been since.
“I was taken off-guard at first,” Smith said. “But I had a conversation with my father, and this game’s not about individual players, so my dad basically told me that ‘You’re a team player, do whatever they need you to do. You’ve always been like that in years past.’”
The redshirt junior now spearheads the Northern Illinois defense which hopes to neutralize a Buffalo offense averaging 35.3 points per game, in the MAC championship game Friday at Ford Field. This season, Smith, who was recently named the MAC defensive player of the year, has recorded 21 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Although it's ranked the No. 1 defense in the MAC, Northern Illinois will have its hands full with Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson (Muskegon Mona Shores) and receivers K.J. Osborn (46 receptions, 769 yards, six touchdowns) — a Ypsilanti native — and Anthony Johnson (45-820-9).
Buffalo (10-2, 7-1 East) last week clinched its first championship game in a decade with a 44-14 victory over Bowling Green.
After a 1-3 start, Northern Illinois (7-5, 6-2 West) rattled off six straight conference wins, then dropped its last two games to Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan. Despite Buffalo owning the better record, Carey and his teams have become quite familiar with the MAC championship game. The Huskies are making their seventh appearance in the past nine seasons, claiming victories in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Northern Illinois’ offense is led by dual-threat quarterback Marcus Childers and the running back tandem of Tre Harbison, who’s rushed for 950 yards, picking up 5.4 yards per carry, and Marcus Jones, who’s added 527 yards and four touchdowns.
These two teams last played each other in October 2017, with Northern winning 14-13 to make it 10 straight victories over Buffalo.
Dwjuan Frazier is a freelance writer.
Buffalo vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Friday, 7 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Buffalo 10-2, Northern Illinois 7-5
Line: Buffalo by 3.5