Last season, Nate D. Smith’s No. 35 jersey was easy to spot in the middle of the Owls’ defense.
Playing middle linebacker, the redshirt senior totaled 71 tackles—the second most on the team. This year, No. 35 is trying to make his presence felt in opponents’ backfields.
Smith switched from linebacker to the defensive line before the season to boost the Owls’ pass rush. The transition has proven fruitful; through the team’s 2-0 start, Smith tallied eight tackles and three sacks.
“The coaches thought it was a good fit for me,” Smith said. “And honestly, I’m having fun down there.”
Injuries to defensive linemen forced Smith to start three games at defensive end in his sophomore season.
He is embracing the change in positions once again this season in order to benefit the team.
“You can’t be selfish out here because we all have one goal—win championships,” Smith said after the team’s 27-10 win against against Penn State Sept. 5. “For us to obtain that goal we just have to play our role and do our jobs.”
Smith’s presence and personality have added value to an Owls team that has set the bar at winning the American Athletic Conference Championship and playing in a bowl game for the first time since the 2011 New Mexico Bowl under former coach Al Golden.
In his fifth year with the program, the redshirt senior knows the right thing to do or say to get the necessary performance out of his teammates.
“He’s just a character,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “If you’re having a bad day or anything, you’re not in the mood to go, you just look at him and he just starts laughing. You can’t help but laugh. He’s one of the best friends. … He’s just such a joyful kid to have on this team.”
Matakevich and Smith played together at linebacker for most of their careers. The duo has combined for 595 tackles so far.
The two players developed a bond during their time at Temple. They call themselves the ‘Bash Brothers’ and are close with each other’s families Smith said.
Linebackers coach Mike Siravo has seen the relationship have an impact on the Owls’ defense.
“They’re close,” Siravo said. “When you do all this work together, you’re going to get close. Over the last few years, they’ll go at each other. They’ll have those lovers’ quarrels. But they’re always on the same page and at the end that’s good. That’s what we need.”
Smith started his season strong with five tackles and two sacks in the team’s 27-10 victory against Penn State.
He followed that performance with one sack and three tackles in the Owls’ 34-26 win Saturday at Cincinnati.
While Siravo spent time as Smith’s position coach for two seasons before he switched positions this year, the coach does not take credit for his success.
“You wind him up, he’s going to rush the passer. I’ve never coached him to rush the passer,” Siravo said. “He’s just natural at it. That’s what guys at a high level do. They just have an ability to get to the quarterback and that’s what Nate has inside of him.”
Smith excelled at the running back position at Highland Park High School. The defensive lineman prefers the defensive side of the ball because he likes to “hit people,” but he said playing running back as well as basketball and track and field have helped him at his new position.
His overall athleticism caught the eye of at least one teammate.
“He’s just an incredible athlete,” junior defensive lineman Sharif Finch said after Smith’s two-sack performance in the team’s first win. “Honestly, that’s my favorite player on the team. Not even myself. Nate D.’s my favorite player.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com, 215.204.9537 or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.