Lewisburg’s Smith in maybe best shape of his life yet

STATE COLLEGE — Brandon Smith said he can’t run for miles and miles at a time like he could do back in the day before practice as an all-state wrestler at Lewisburg High School.

But as a Big Ten linebacker Smith, now 23 and married, has traded that for added strength as he enters his fifth and final season at Penn State. It’s so good that defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Smith is probably in the best shape of his life.

“I can push around more, with more physical conditioning,” said Smith Saturday at the Nittany Lions’ preseason media day. He’s one of two area players on the roster, along with first-year freshman walk-on offensive lineman Crae McCracken of Loyalsock.

Smith’s presence is more than just the last of the “run-ons” of 2013 under NCAA sanctions, it’s a sense of maturity and purpose beyond the field lacking in many of his teammates let alone most undergrads, said Pry. Football is part of the work day and there’s not enough time for silliness in the dorms or elsewhere.

“Morning workouts and it’s snowing and we’ve got to come in a 5 a.m.,” said Pry. “He had to shovel the driveway. He’s got a wife to worry about and all these guys have is themselves. It’s different for him.”

Already done is one degree in kinesiology and Smith has plans on another at Penn State in health policy administration before leaving next year for medical school, where he’s hurrying to finish as many applications as possible before the season starts.

On the field, 2016 was different too, as it brought Smith’s most complete action after appearing in just three games the year before as a special teamer. He made eight tackles against Temple on Sept. 17, playing more in one game than he had in his entire career to that point, then earned a start against Michigan at middle linebacker the following week as a run of early-season injuries to all three starters shuffled the depth chart.

Smith’s targeting ejection against Michigan complicated things, but he returned to start the following week vs. Minnesota with seven tackles and then earned Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Week the following week against Maryland after 14 tackles and an interception.

He finished the season with 54 tackles and enters 2017 with a chance to start but most assuredly in the two-deep plans at outside linebacker, according to Pry.

Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker and Manny Bowen outside return as starters. Cam Brown, Jake Cooper, and Koa Farmer also return with linebacker starts from last season.

“This offseason for Smitty was about making sure he’s as lean as he can be with his frame, and just to be as quick an explosive as we talked about,” said Pry. “He attacked those.”

Smith entered preseason practice listed at 6-feet, 227 pounds. He noticed some of the hype Saquon Barkley got on social media for setting the school record in the power clean at 405 pounds, but said he could care less what others were doing in the weight room even as colleges nationally tout their top workout performers.

“I just focus on giving my best in those workouts,” said Smith. “If other people are stronger and faster, good for them. I’m just going to worry about what I can do, and that’s for the best.”

Off the field, he’s happy to be done with his Medical College Admissions Test. He also shadowed other doctors in Hershey, where he’s seen surgeries and other orthopedic work. He’s interested in bariatrics, which is the treatment of obesity, but is otherwise keeping options open. The health policy degree was a chance to study another important part of being a doctor, Smith said, and there was some overlap with kinesiology.

So what’s better? Studying to be a doctor or studying to be a linebacker?

“At least with the MCATs I learned it all in school,” said Smith. “It’s refreshing going over it again, but film with the other teams each week is different. You study the tight end, the quarterback, the running back… You see what they do differently each week and that’s new stuff and that makes it fun.”