Growing through tumultuous season, LB Brandon Smith optimistic for 2021
Brandon Smith opted for brutal honesty in his postmortem of the Nittany Lions’ 2020 season.
Coming into the year with lofty expectations, largely a byproduct of his 37 tackles as a true freshman and ascension to the starting weakside linebacker spot in the offseason, Smith intended on a seamless transition. Head coach James Franklin, defensive coordinator Brent Pry, and teammates shared those expectations, too.
But in a year that started sideways, the Nittany Lions owning an 0-5 mark at its midpoint featuring weekly letdowns on the defensive side of the ball, Smith pointed to those very expectations as inhibitors to his and the group’s success.
“A whole bunch of us were unfocused. We were too high on last year, as Cotton Bowl champions, that had a very strong season,” Smith said, fresh off the 56-21 win against Illinois that would cap the Lions’ season at 4-5. “It was just on us being immature as a defense and taking things for granted. That's all it was.
“I sit back and I watch a lot of things unfold. I don't talk much and I analyze things, and that's what I saw. And then once we finally grew up as a defense, we understood what we needed to do. Whether it was on and off the field, we started seeing more success and we continued to do that up to this point now.”
The shift in the Lions’ defensive performance was pronounced, and one that was accompanied by development from Smith as the season progressed.
Slashing their points per game allowed average from 36 in their losses to 17.25 in their wins, the Nittany Lions used their bottoming-out as a point from which to pivot and grow, Smith said. Having been unable to carry through the momentum of the 2019 season, “feeling good” before getting “hit in the mouth” at the onset of the 2020 campaign, Smith said that the entirety of the defense experienced an inflection point.
“Enough is enough,” Smith said. “Like the one kid that gets bullied, he has enough of it and just stands up to the bully. That's kind of like the mindset that we had, that enough was enough and we're not gonna take this anymore.”
For Smith’s part, that meant a gradual and steady improvement across the board.
Tagged with his worst-graded performance of the season in the opener at Indiana according to PFF’s advanced metrics, Smith produced some of the defense’s highest tackling grades in the ensuing weeks, topping out with an overall grade of 74.2 in the Lions’ 23-7 win at Rutgers. On the backside of the effort, Pry praised the development that he’d seen through his young linebacker through the course of the season, hinting at an unspecified injury sustained earlier in the year while turning an eye toward his potential for the future.
“Brandon's got a great work ethic and, to be honest, has worked through some challenges and I think is turning the corner. You're going to see him flash and do some nice things, and you're still going to see some areas where he's still got to grow and be better,” Pry said. “But, I see improvement in him every week and that's what I'm looking for from everybody when we evaluate the guys; if you keep working towards your full potential. I think he's done a good job of that.”
Smith felt the same.
Asked by a reporter whether or not the game had come more fluidly down the stretch, contrasting it against Smith’s performances earlier in the year, the sophomore didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the progress he’d made.
“That's something that I've heard a lot, and I'm glad that you pointed that out because I have. At first, at the beginning of the season, I was not hesitant, but I just didn't want to make any mistakes. And that caused me to be hesitant,” he said. “But now, I know what to do. I've been in the system for a while. I know multiple different linebacker positions. I'm just now trying to have fun with it. I know what I need to do on the field and I'm just not thinking. And that's what's led to the play that is happening now.”
Finishing his year fifth on the team in total tackles with 37, with a unit-high 8.0 tackles for loss to go along with a pair of sacks, an interception, a pass breakup, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery, Smith is convinced the lessons of the season that was will pay dividends moving forward.
“We know for a fact that we can conquer anything that we put our minds to,” he said. “We dealt with adversity in many ways, from people getting injured to just things not adding up in general. And now, looking at what we're able to do when we actually can do what we want to do, it's a beautiful thing. I'm confident in next year and looking forward to it.”