Let’s use a popular Twitter meme to recap the 2020 season for the conjoined pair of linebacker Brandon Smith and Penn State football:
How it started:
Zero tackles in a disputed 36-35 OT loss to Indiana, the first of five consecutive losses.
How it ended:
A team-leading eight tackles, with three for a loss, and a fumble recovery in a 56-21 win over Illinois, culminating a four-game winning streak.
The Nittany Lions’ fortunes in 2020 didn’t depend entirely on Smith, but the way the year played out, you could use Smith’s sophomore season as a personification of the bad/good that was Penn State football.
Smith entered this season all hyped up, the five-star lead dog in the 2019 recruiting class as a first-team USA Today prep star and the No. 1 recruit out of Virginia. He played in seven games as a true freshman in 2019, cooling his heels behind savvy veterans Cam Brown and Jan Johnson. Smith was ready to spend 2020 as Robin to Micah Parson’s Batman before taking ownership of LBU in 2021.
Then the pandemic hit, the Big Ten season was cancelled and Parsons opted out. Finally, football was brought back. By the time Penn State started the 2020 season on October 24, it was ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press poll.
HOW IT STARTED
After the loss to Indiana, four more quickly followed. Smith had four, maybe five, one time six tackles, with a sack here and his first pick there. He showed flashes of brilliance, but mostly he was an ordinary Mr. Smith playing a position at a school where his predecessors were often extraordinary.
He ranked never higher than No. 5 on the team in tackles as Penn State lost five games in the season’s first 29 days, to start 0-5 for the first time in 134 seasons.
The Nittany Lions, off an 11-2 season and a 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, were not who they — or anyone else — thought they were. Same goes for Smith.
‘We had a mindset where, ‘Hey, we have a lot of momentum from last year.’ We were just feeling good about what was going on,’ Smith recalled Saturday night. ‘Then we got hit in the mouth. We kind of fell apart a little bit.
‘Really, it was a bunch of us were unfocused. We were too high on last year and the Cotton Bowl championship and that we had a very strong season last year. It was us being immature as a defense and taking things for granted. That’s all it was.’
As Penn State started losing games and players with stunning regularity, James Franklin’s words from the 2018 Coaches Caravan whispered in the quickly-chilling autumn winds:
‘It’s making sure that our team is mature enough to handle it and doesn’t feel like winning is just a birthright at Penn State — because it’s not,’ said Franklin (James, not Ben) in Philadelphia in May 2018. ‘It’s getting our guys to understand the type of sacrifices, the type of investment they are going to make.’
It was a lesson that also had to be learned by Smith, with oodles of strength and speed and potential and accolades from Gatorade and MaxPrep and Under Armour and ESPN. Four tackles against Ohio State and five against Iowa were OK, but overall they were not getting it done. Neither was a penalty for a late hit or running past ball-carriers in space.
HOW IT WAS GOING
Smith, an honor roll and National Honor Society student back in Louisa County, Va., knew that how it was going was not good.
He also knew that he was thinking too much on a defense that, counting Parsons, was missing seven starters from a D that in 2019 gave up just 208 points in 13 games. By comparison, Smith & Co. gave up 180 points in the first five games of 2020.
‘At first, at the beginning of the season, I was not really hesitant,’ he said, ‘but I just didn’t want to make any mistakes. And that’s what caused me to be hesitant.’
He who hesitates is lost, and not just to Indiana. But to Ohio State, Maryland, Nebraska and Iowa as well.
A criminology major at Penn State, Smith aspires to have a three-letter career — in the NFL. His other professional goal — working for the FBI — was looking like a better choice. At 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, if he couldn’t catch quarterbacks maybe he could get crooks.
‘It was a dark moment at that time, just not knowing what we needed to change up to that point,’ Smith said of the losing streak. ‘We knew we were doing our assignments the right way. We just couldn’t figure out what it was (that was going wrong).’
It got tough. ‘We would put something on social media and people would give us backlash,’ said Smith, cupping his hands around his mouth, to simulate the social media megaphone: ‘ ‘0-5, 0-5, 0-5.’ That was annoying.
‘It was like, ‘OK, somethings need to be changed. What do we need to change?’ ‘ Smith said. ‘It was a process of finding that out, and figuring out what we needed to change on and off the field.’
Smith is admittedly a quiet kind of kid. So he looked inward and in the mirror.
‘For me, I sat back and watched a lot of things unfold,’ he said. ‘I don’t really talk much. I analyze things. That’s what I had seen. Once we finally grew up as a defense and understood what we needed to do — whether it’s on or off the field — we started to see more success, and we continued to do that to this point now.’
HOW IT ENDED
Now, for Smith, was this past Saturday night, in the cold and Beaver Stadium-empty finale of Covid Football 2020, a thrashing of Illinois, most certainly the worst team in the Big Ten still standing in Week 9.
Penn State’s season was truly divided into halves, and the Illini certainly exemplified that.
The Nittany Lions started winless in five games against what turned out to be a tough slate of opponents, which had a combined record of 23-11. Indiana, Ohio State and Iowa all won six games, and counting.
The Nittany Lions finished against a markedly easier stretch of foes, winning four games against a group that was a combined 8-21. Rutgers had three wins, while Illinois, MSU and Michigan each had two.
Timing is everything. Smith, now with nine starts made in the middle of a pandemic under his belt, feels comfortable with his role and responsibilities in Brent Pry’s defense.
‘I’ve been in this system for awhile, so I know multiple linebacker positions,’ Smith said. ‘Now I’m just trying to have fun with it. I now know what to do on the field and I’m not thinking about it first. That’s what has led to me playing the way I am now.’
WHERE IT’S HEADED
With Smith on Saturday night, I had in the final question of his post-game interview on Zoom after what turned out to be the final game of the season — and the latest game ever played in Bever Stadium. I asked him what he learned about his personal transformation, going from tackleless in Indiana to sackmeister against Illinois.
The direction he took his answer was surprising.
Smith not only looked at the distance traveled in the 57 days and nine games from season-opener to season-ender in a truncated and occasionally-troubling season. He peered to what’s beyond his time at Penn State.
In fact, that time could be short.
A true sophomore, Smith retains three more seasons of eligibility if he wants them, since the 2020 season is a bonus, a mulligan gift from the NCAA. Conversely, the 2021 season — which begins in 37 weeks in Madison, Wisconsin, for the Nittany Lions — could be his last, since it will be is third year at Penn State and thus eligible to declare for the NFL.
The pandemic has magnified everything, and has caused many people to reflect on their career goals and priorities. Smith, who saw Parsons opt out and declare for the NFL and millions of dollars after just two seasons and 13 starts at Penn State, included. (Memo to CJF: The possibility was his idea, not mine.)
‘Really, it’s been about me just understanding where I want to be in the next two or one or two years,’ Smith shared. ‘That’s definitely the biggest thing for me as far as my mindset for that.
‘I know that my responsibilities on the field have to be within the framework of the defense. But I also understand that I want to take care of my family and make sure that everyone is fine. I want to see a smile on everybody’s face. That’s really what my goal is.’