This week’s game: Middle Tennessee State (4-2) at No. 15 MSU (6-0), Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2 (Mark Jones, Brock Huard and Jessica Mendoza)
In today’s Journal is a story on right guard Tobias Smith, who had a superb outing in last week’s win over Tennessee. What was interesting in talking with coaches about him yesterday was that while they praised his play, they said the offense’s fourth-quarter resurgence wasn’t due mainly to Smith’s play, but his presence might’ve had something to do with it.
Smith is talented, no doubt. And if you watched that game, then you know what he was destroying people, and it’s no coincidence that MSU averaged 5.1 yards per rush and scored two TDs in the fourth quarter. But it goes deeper than that with Smith.
“Watching the film, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, boy, Tobias is in and that’s what made the difference,’” head coach Dan Mullen said. “I think his mindset, though, certainly does help the demeanor in the huddle.”
Offensive line coach John Hevesy said Smith has a “vibe” about him that most players don’t. If you’ve ever spoken with him, you’ve sensed that vibe. Smith is a good talker with a keen sense of humor, and he’ll often break into a broad smile when answering a question. He’s a team captain, a guy who’s looked up to and admired.
When Smith limped off the field in the second quarter, the other Bulldogs were extremely concerned. They’d seen him go down hurt too many times already the past several years.
“When he got rolled up, which I think was more frightening for him than anything else, was that all those offensive linemen sit there and go, what’s wrong?” Hevesy said. “You’ve got Arceto Clark walking up saying, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with Tobias?’ He’s an infectious kid in a positive way, which is the greatest thing going.”
We’ve heard plenty about Smith’s leadership off the field, too. He’s played rather sparingly this year, with his 49 snaps versus Tennessee tying his season high. He’s played in four of MSU’s six games, starting three. That’s meant lots of snaps for redshirt freshman Justin Malone, who was apparently very nervous during the Tennessee game.
“It was a big game for him, the biggest game most of us have played in,” Smith said. “For him to play at the level he did while I was out, it really helped us out.”
Mullen summed up pretty well what Smith means to this team.
“I mean here’s a guy that didn’t play a whole lot last year, he missed most of the season, didn’t go through spring, was held out of winter conditioning, minimal in summer conditioning, minimal in training camp. And yet still voted a captain by his teammates. It shows the respect he has on the team. So him being in the huddle I think uplifts the play of everybody around him.”
• Also in today’s Journal is a press conference notebook that covers Middle Tennessee, turnover margin and penalties.
• Let’s check in on MTSU: As I’m sure you’ve heard, star tailback Benny Cunningham is done for the season, and for his college career. That was mentioned in my notebook, and it’s a huge loss. Still, Mullen isn’t going to say he expects a drop-off in production from the MTSU backfield.
“When you have a star player go down, the psyche, it hurts for the team, it’s sometimes tough,” Mullen said. “But also I think the team does rally around that guy, and you have the opportunity to see some extraordinary performances.”