Brandon Smith had started his Penn State career in 2013 as a fullback. Which was a bit of a problem considering the Nittany Lions don’t even acknowledge the position exists anymore.
So he was essentially a walk-on tight end, quite literally looking up to guys like 6-foot-7 Jesse James and 6-foot-6 Mike Gesicki.
“I was competing with Mike and Kyle Carter and Jesse James and those guys are like titans,” Smith said. “I’m 6-foot, 230 at that point in time. So I knew my prospects of getting on the field on offense were very limited.”
So the Lewisburg High School grad began lobbying James Franklin for a switch. And lobbying.
“I knew I could play linebacker, so I talked to (linebackers coach Brent Pry), I’d talk to coach Franklin. Once a week, every other week I’d be up in one of their offices telling them I can do this. I’m not pulling your leg or anything like that.”
He was right.
As he prepares to play his final game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday when the Lions host Nebraska, Smith will be in the starting lineup as a scholarship linebacker and one of the most respected people in the locker room.
A backup for much of the season, Smith is in line for his second straight start at the weak-side spot in place of Manny Bowen, who remains suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules, according to Franklin.
Asked if Bowen would return this season, Franklin responded, “Bowen’s not available right now.”
The Lions coach was far more descriptive when discussing Smith, recalling the constant visits Smith made to his office.
“Brandon was the guy that wanted to have a bigger role,” Franklin said. “He started as a fullback, then linebacker, and thought he should be playing and playing on special teams. We kind of kept saying, ‘All right, we heard you, we heard you.’
“He’s one of these guys that he just was so persistent. So persistent. … He kept telling us he was ready, and we kind of kept shoving him away. He kept coming back. Instead of sulking, he just worked harder. Kept fighting for his opportunity.”
It came last year when the linebacker room was decimated by injuries, at one point missing all three starters, plus a handful of reserves.
Smith took on the important role of middle linebacker midway through the third game of the 2016 season against Temple before starting there against Michigan and Maryland.
“When I got to play in the Temple game, that was the first time I played real time at linebacker,” Smith said. “It’s just kind of like a relief that I wasn’t crazy. That I actually could go out on the field and do well. I was just happy with that opportunity. I’ve just enjoyed my time.”
He saw meaningful snaps even after Jason Cabinda returned, even coming up with a key interception to open the second half against Purdue, which triggered a rout.
Smith had his degree last year and was already married. But with a scholarship now waiting for him, he decided to return for a fifth season.
A backup for the first nine games, he stepped up against Rutgers with Bowen sidelined, recording 10 tackles and earning defensive player of the game honors from the coaching staff.
Despite limited snaps, he enters this week sixth on the team in tackles with 37.
“I’d say patience has been one of the biggest things for me, just waiting for an opportunity and preparation,” Smith said. “Just having the right attitude.”
Lions move up
Penn State climbed four spots in the latest College Football Playoff poll, moving to No. 10 on Tuesday night. The Lions jumped Washington, TCU, USC and Michigan State.
At 8-2, Penn State’s Playoff and Big Ten title hopes have all but vanished — the Lions will be eliminated from the latter race if Ohio State beats lowly Illinois on Saturday. But a 10-2 finish would give them a good shot at playing in one of the non-Playoff New Year’s Six bowls — the Orange, Peach, Cotton or Fiesta.
Gesicki got a message from former teammate Adam Breneman on Tuesday morning.
“AB texted me this morning, ‘Welcome to the club, buddy.’ ” said Gesicki, who didn’t know that both players had been named two of eight semifinalists for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
Breneman, now a grad student at UMass, leads the country among tight ends with 53 catches without a drop. Gesicki leads the Lions with 42 receptions and has five touchdowns.
Trace McSorley, meanwhile was named a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given to the country’s top fourth- or fifth-year quarterback for accomplishments on and off the field.
McSorley is joined by Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and N.C. State’s Ryan Finley.
Ticket increase coming
Penn State announced Monday that the cost of a 2018 season ticket package would go up by $35 — a hike of $5 for each of the seven home games. It is the first season ticket price increase for the program since 2009.
The cost of a season ticket in Beaver Stadium’s main bowl will go up from $385 to $420 for 2018, with the home schedule featuring visits from Appalachian State, Iowa, Kent State, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.