2017-08-12 / Sports

Smith happy to represent District 4

BY BRIAN FEES

Sports Editor

STATE COLLEGE — When he started, Brandon Smith was just hoping to one day get on the field at Penn State.

Smith was a walk-on player for the Nittany Lions who hadn't really gotten much of a chance to play. That was until injuries hit last year.

When called upon, Smith suddenly found himself thrust into the starting lineup, and he succeeded, including earning a Big 10 Defensive Player of the Week honor.

"I am really thankful for the opportunities," he said. "I had great guys playing around me that definitely made it easier and I am thankful when I did get my opportunity I was able to make the most of it for the most part."

And, Smith was happy to be able to show people the kind of football talent that can come out of District 4.

"It's not really well known for football necessarily, more for wrestling, but there's good players there and I'm glad I was able to represent the district well."

As Penn State gets further away from the sanctions, the number of walk-ons at Penn State is dropping and the amount of talent on the rosters is rising each year.

"I would say there are less and less walk-ons in each class as we have gotten our scholarships back," Smith said. "That just improves the competition as you bring in really athletic guys. I think it's going to be really good going into the future and we are excited about the direction the program is going."

There were a lot of memorable moments for Smith and the Nittany Lions last year.

"As a team a lot of the guys mention the Ohio State game," Smith said. "That was a really special moment, especially that block by Marcus (Allen) and Grant (Haley) finding the end zone. It was just a crazy way to turn the game. Then the student section rushing the field afterwards was truly a special experience. Then when we won the Big 10 East by beating Michigan State. We needed Ohio State to beat Michigan and every once in a while we'd hear the crowd roar and we kind of assumed they had heard some news. Then finishing that game winning the Big 10 East, that was a great experience.

"The Rose Bowl is one of the most historic college football games there is and they treated us really well and Penn State did a lot to really give us a great experience. It was really fun. That game unfortunately we didn't win, but it was a wild game, really fun, awesome atmosphere."

And Smith had some special moments of his own.

"I joked with some people when we played Ohio State it was still kind of in the middle of the season and J.T. Barrett was still in the Heisman conversation and I had an open field tackle on him and I came to the sideline and I said I hope he wins the Heisman so I can tell all my friends I tackled the Heisman Trophy winner. I just had a lot of fun with all my teammates and we got a lot of guys back and we can do something special this year if we keep working hard, stay humble and stay focused."

For Smith it's different going into a season this year after the playing time he got a year ago.

"I am excited for this year," Smith said. "It's nice coming into training camp and being able to be in a better position to compete for a job at linebacker and special teams. Going in knowing I am capable of it gives me a little more confidence for this season to keep working hard and take more chances in practice, get comfortable at my new position. We are going to have a lot of fun this year and I'm looking forward to it."

Smith is ready to enjoy his final season at Penn State.

"I am just taking every step one day at a time, making the most of it," Smith said. "I am having more fun so far in training camp this year than any other year. I'm just trying to have fun with my teammates and enjoy it and soak it in.

"It's been really gratifying, the support I've gotten from the community, especially my home community. A lot of people are out there cheering for us, and cheering for me. It's great to know we have such a great fan base behind us."

BATTLE FOR THIRD STRING

With Trace McSorley locked in as Penn State's starting quarterback and Tommy Stevens set as the backup it would seem like everything is figured out at quarterback for the Nittany Lions.

That's not exactly the case as there is a heated battle between red-shirt freshman Jake Zembiec and true freshman Sean Clifford for the third-string job.

Both were highly recruited quarterbacks. Clifford was ranked the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in his class and the top prospect in the state of Ohio. Zembiec was the No. 10 overall quarterback in the country, and top player in New York State by Rivals in High School.

"I feel really good," Zembiec said. "I spent a lot of time in the offseason and at the end of the spring working on nutrition, putting on weight, getting stronger. I feel like my arm is a lot more live and strong this camp. I feel like I have a better grip on the playbook. But, Sean, he came in well prepared. He did a nice job learning the plays. He obviously has a great arm. We have been getting about equal reps and we are both doing great. It's a healthy competition."

After a standout high school career, red-shirting was tough last year for Zembiec. But, he felt like he learned a lot during the year off.

"When you find out you aren't going to play it's kind of hard at first, but it's also humbling," Zembiec said. "You realize you have to work that much harder and work that much more to earn your spot. Watching Trace and Tommy at points playing the game taught me a lot.

"Me and Sean are battling, we are both competing at a high level right now. Really everyone is getting better and benefiting from this. High school is definitely not like that (with this kind of quarterback competition). It makes practices a lot more fun. The cool thing is we are all best friends off the field, so it's a good, healthy competition."

And, all of the younger quarterbacks have been able to learn from McSorley and Stevens.

"They are obviously great players," Zembiec said. "They have a really good grasp on the offense. Whether you need something in the playbook or you want to know how to execute something on the field you can go to them for help or as a model. I just try and model my game after them."

CONFIDENT LIONS

When you win the Big 10 and go to the Rose Bowl, there is definitely a boost to confidence the next season.

That's something that is evident with this year's Penn State team.

"I would definitely say the confidence level is up there right now," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "We definitely know what we are capable of doing and right now it's just taking it to the opponent every single day. Grinding and competing our butts off in practice. We are really getting after it right now. There is no sign of complacency whatsoever. I think that's the best part about it."

That confidence is high throughout the Penn State roster.

"The confidence is out of the roof," safety Marcus Allen said. "Guys are coming in with a little more swagger, but they have a level head, we have to stay humble."

And with that confidence comes a little different mentality for the team.

I would say right now it's just a mentality coming into practice," Cabinda said. "Right now I would say something the team is doing in general, every day in practice we are coming in with a purpose. I kind of make sure I have a focus. When you work with a purpose like that, that is how you get better. It's the little things."

Some of that added confidence on offense comes from guys having a full year under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and his offense.

"I think from a confidence standpoint guys just understand their role a little better," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "Being a full year and a half into the system now, so I think it just helps with understanding your job and understanding your role. And, obviously, your year and a half experience with this it's only going to help."

FROM RAGS TO RICHES

For many Penn State players when they started their careers there were no bowl games, no thoughts of playing for a National Title.

A lot of the upperclassmen started at a time when sanctions limited scholarships and had Penn State missing out on bowl games.

Now, they are coming off a Rose Bowl season and hoping for more this year.

"We came to Penn State at a time there was no bowl games or any of that kind of stuff," Gesicki, a senior said. "Now, being here, having the chance to be successful, having the opportunity to reach our goals, it's exciting and something we look forward to and we are happy to be in this position. We are definitely not looking too far ahead, we are taking it day by day.

"We all went through adversity, went through our trials. Being where we are right now, it's exciting."

The players know it took a lot to get to where they are now.

"I think it's got a little different feel to it because we understand now where we can be and how good we can be if we push ourselves and reach our potential," McSorley said. "I think also you have a lot of guys on this team that were there at that time. They were around guys like Michael Mauti and got to meet him and guys that really got us through those times and it means a lot to be able to carry on that legacy. To be able to continue on that mentality no matter the circumstances, we aren't going to let that impact how we work."

HIGH HOPES

There are some big expectations for Penn State football after what they accomplished last year.

The Nittany Lions were ranked in the top 10 in the first preseason poll and are coming off a conference title.

But, the players aren't really worried about those things.

"You can't ever let your foot off the gas," Allen said. "You have to keep pushing forward. I don't think anything changes, you have to keep going forward.

"Whatever they (other teams) bring us, we are going to have to go with. We worry about ourselves."

And, when it comes to rankings and things like that, the players aren't all looking at those things.

"I really don't pay it that much mind," Allen said. "I just pay attention to ourselves. I don't even look at it."

McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are each Heisman Trophy contenders in the preseason, but that's not something McSorley is thinking about.

"If I can come in and help this team win," McSorley said. "All those awards usually go to the best player on the best team. I just want to get my team to be as good as they can be and let all the rest fall where it may."

When it comes to the hype surrounding the program, the players are just focused on getting better.

"You just don't (focus on the hype)," Cabinda said. "We focus on us, at the end of the day that's all that matters. If we want to win games we know every single day you have to make the most of each day. You have to get 1 percent better each day. That's kind of the approach we took last year and we liked the results."

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