Mike Smith is not talking this week, which must be killing him.
The man now fully responsible for Texas Tech’s defense is not doing interviews this week, which is understandable. Tech is busy trying to rally from its abrupt coaching shakeup and prepare for a critical Thursday night game at No. 24 Oklahoma State.
The 33-year-old steps into a tricky situation, but one he no doubt treasures. The unexpected resignation of co-defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt last week is giving Smith, a loud and proud former Red Raiders linebacker, a pressure-packed chance to once again prove himself.
“He brings a lot of energy,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. “Very positive. Good with the players. Things won’t change a lot schematically or personnel. But every guy is going to have their different way of doing things. I think he’s handled himself well.”
Smith’s rapid rise in the coaching ranks parallels Kingsbury’s in many ways. They were teammates at Texas Tech for three years. They cut their teeth with some of the game’s best coaches. They approach their jobs today with the passion of guys who wish they were still playing.
A four-year starting linebacker with the Red Raiders who racked up 314 tackles, Smith, who graduated in 2004, played hard and might’ve pranked harder. He and roommate Wes Welker, one of Smith’s best friends to this day, developed quite the reputation. One time, they released a pack of hairless rats in Tech’s running backs room.
On the field, though, they teamed with Kingbsury to help lay the foundation for the Mike Leach era in Lubbock. Smith tied for the team lead in tackles as a senior and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
He played there for two seasons under defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, backing up an All-Pro in Ray Lewis and learning from veterans like Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott.
But Smith’s climb up the coaching ladder couldn’t begin without a heartbreaking setback. He earned his first career start, in place of an injured Lewis, on Nov. 12, 2006. He injured his left shoulder on his very first snap, after a cut block from Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae.
The Ravens announced he would miss two or three weeks. But the injury was much worse than that. Smith suffered a torn labrum, rotator cuff and biceps tendon and had dislocated his shoulder. The injury would eventually require four surgeries.
Smith missed the 2007 season and reached an injury settlement with the Ravens in summer 2008. His playing days were over after just 14 games as a pro.
But Smith made some important friends during his time with the Ravens. After a stint as a grad assistant at Hawaii in 2009, he landed an internship with the New York Jets and reunited with Ryan.
This was grunt work at its finest: up to 20 hours a day of helping with game plans and meetings for little pay and less recognition. He stayed in the townhouse of then-Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, now the Cleveland Browns’ head coach. Smith made a big impression, especially for his work helping revive linebacker Aaron Maybin’s career.
“It’s like the 'it' factor with coaches,” Pettine told the New York Daily News in 2011. “You either have it or you don’t. And he’s got it.”
He got the coaches’ attention, too, with his sideline antics. The no-name intern couldn’t stop himself from running on the field and celebrating his pass-rushers’ feats.
“The refs would tell me before the game, ‘Hey, Coach Smith, you’re going to have to stay off the field. You’re out there on the freaking numbers,’ ” Smith told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal last year. “I was going to go tackle those guys.”
He turned down opportunities to work with two of his former Texas Tech coaches, Leach and Dana Holgorsen, after Ryan finally promoted him to a full-time gig -- outside linebackers coach -- for the 2012 season.
He couldn’t say no, though, to teaming up with Kingsbury at the end of 2012 as co-defensive coordinator. And now, for the first time in his young coaching career, he’s fully in charge of a defense. When the news broke Thursday, Smith received congratulatory text messages from both Ryan and Pettine.
In the week since, the interim DC has had plenty to fix after Tech gave up 49 points and 438 rushing yards in a blowout loss to Arkansas. Smith will lean on his NFL background to fix alignment issues. He’ll lean on his Ryan-trained love for dialing up blitzes, too. For all of Smith's energy, Tech Tech linebacker Sam Eguavoen said Smith’s daily demeanor meshes well with players.
“He's just more laid-back. I don't want to say a friendly environment, but it's less stress, less screaming,” Eguavoen said. “I mean, he comes to you like a man, not as a child or something.”
During Kingsbury’s weekly radio show last week, Smith spoke for the first and only time before the Red Raiders take the field against Oklahoma State. He told the story of meeting with the defense that day. He made a challenge to his players that he’ll promise to match:
“For the next nine games, give me everything you’ve got.”