Aug. 8, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Marshall senior nose tackle Ken Smith is a good humor man.
So says his position coach, J.C. Price, who explains that the senior from Texas “always knows when to crack a joke at the appropriate time.”
Maybe that’s how Smith has endured a trying football life, just trying to play “a game I really love.”
Last season after his arrival at Marshall as a transfer from Blinn College in his home state, Smith figured he was ready to contribute. Nope.
A bad disc caused Smith to undergo back surgery, and he didn’t play for the Herd until the final three games in November.
For the 6-foot-3, 291-pound Smith, it simply seemed to be more of the same.
“That’s why I’m taking it for what it is, my last shot here, this is all I’ve got,” Smith said earlier this week after a Herd practice. “So every day I wake up, I tell myself I’ve got to come out here and give my best. “This is my last chance.”
He learned to endure long ago. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Smith is the son of a U.S. Army veteran. His youth was mostly spent in Germany, but he’s also lived in Maryland, Delaware and Texas.
And unlike most of his Herd teammates, he didn’t play a down of organized football until he was 12 – on a military base in Germany. He played one season of high school football in Maryland before he moved to Texas when his father, Kelvin, got a military contractor job at Fort Hood.
However, Smith’s mother, Sara worked for United Airlines and couldn’t get a transfer from the company from overseas to the U.S.
So, Smith and his dad moved, his mom visited when possible – the family needed both salaries -- and while his father was away on the job in Texas, a neighbor looked in on the teenaged Smith and helped him with meals and laundry.
Smith enrolled at Copperas Cove High in February 2008 went through spring drills and then practiced with the Bulldawgs the following preseason for his senior year. On the day before the season was to begin, the governing organization of Texas high school sports said Smith was ineligible to play because his family’s move – and his transfer -- was based on choice, not necessity.
Smith’s love for the game and desire to keep playing won out.
He practiced the entire 2008 season with the scout team as part of the Copperas Cove junior varsity roster, then headed to Blinn, where he sat out 2009 – the year 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton quarterbacked the Buccaneers to a national JUCO title -- and then played two seasons.
Former Herd assistant coach Fred Tate recruited Smith to Marshall.
“It wasn’t tough at all,” said Price, the MU defensive tackles coach, when asked if Smith had a difficult time picking up the nuances of the major college game because his football history has been so unique. Ken’s very intelligent; his football IQ is very high.
“Ken’s problem last year was physical, and that put him back, and he came back late in the season but he was a little bit out of shape.
“The work that Ken has put in this summer has really showed, especially early here in camp.”
Price has Smith at nose, where Brandon Sparrow is the starter. Those two are joined by Josh Brown, who has been moved from the other tackle spot (3-technique) in camp. The 3-technique berth will go to redshirt senior James Rouse or redshirt sophomores Steve Dillon and Jarquez Samuel.
Price added some of those six are “cross-training” for the two spots, too.
“We have three guys back (Sparrow, Dillon, Samuel) who played last year but only one guy back who played significant minutes. It would take a lot to unseat Sparrow, definitely, at nose, but Ken’s in line there for second spot and the way we play defense at this level, we’re going to need four or five guys, so he’s right in the mix.”
Smith, who played the 3-technique spot when he was able last season, said he feels he’s a better fit at nose in coordinator Chuck Heater’s defense. He said he’s as ready to go as he has been in a while.
“I’m actually healthy now, feeling good, ready to compete,” Smith said. “I come out here every day now and don’t worry about injury. After the surgery, I played the last three games and you think you’re OK.
“The thing is I really didn’t feel all that good, but when you haven’t played and you want to play, it’s like, your mind tells you you’re good, but you’re really not so. You can show the film and see you’re not all the way there yet.”
Smith had an offer from Ohio University as well as the Herd, and attracted interest from a few BCS programs, but he chose Marshall “because I came on my visit and really liked it,” he said. “I liked Coach Holliday, liked everything they were about and said I’d have an opportunity, so I took it. It just was right.”
Now, Smith just wants to get on the field and stay there.
“He’s just a great kid, great person, loves the game, loves to play it,” said Price, who almost two decades ago was one of those kind of players as a blue-collar and star nose man at Virginia Tech. “Ken’s one of those football junkies, and it absolutely killed him last year because he couldn’t play.
“The other thing is he’s a guy that has fun. After his senior year and he’s gone, they’re going to miss him because he’s the guy who always knows when to crack a joke at the appropriate time.
“He’s quite humorous.”
Smith hopes he has a chance to help put plenty of smiles on herd faces in 2013.
“I just think it comes natural to me,” the well-traveled defensive tackle said when asked about being the “funny guy” Price praised. “I like to make people laugh, have a good time, but I know when it’s time to go to work, too.
“I feel like – as a group – we’re all getting better on defense, buying in more, with more talent than we had last year, more experience. The enthusiasm is great, and this is a great defense to play in that Coach Heater has.
“It gives me and it gives us a lot of hope.”