Sutton Smith does not believe in subtlety.
“People are definitely going to look out for me. They’re going to gameplan for me. That’s just fine,” the Northern Illinois star defensive end said. “You can try to double-team me. You can put a tight end on me. You can do a running back shift. I’m going to play fast. And me playing fast, I’m going to try to tire out whoever I’m playing up against, because I know I can play faster than them any given second.”
On Saturday, Smith will be Iowa’s headache. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will have to scheme ways to slow down the 6-foot-1, 241-pound dynamo who recorded 14 sacks and an incredible 29.5 tackles for loss a season ago.
And Ferentz will need to do it without the benefit of his two starting offensive tackles. Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will sit out the 2:30 p.m. Hawkeyes’ season-opener at Kinnick Stadium as punishment for off-the-field indiscretions. In their place, senior Dalton Ferguson and freshman Mark Kallenberger will be making their first career starts.
“That’s kind of a disappointment,” Smith said of not getting to line up against Iowa’s usual starters.
He seemed to mean that. One thing that became clear in a telephone interview with the Huskies junior is that his speech is as direct as his path to opposing quarterbacks.
Like this, on being asked by Northern Illinois coaches to switch from running back to linebacker in his first year on campus: “It’s like a girlfriend. You get dumped by a girl, you’re going to be pretty sad for a couple of weeks. It’s like you lost something, then you regained something.”
Smith — who was so skilled at running back at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, that Alabama was among the schools recruiting him — eventually embraced that shift to defense. He showed a natural knack for rushing the passer and was moved from linebacker to defensive end after one day.
His sophomore season was one for the ages, beginning with a season-opening effort against Boston College that included five tackles for loss.
In Week 3, Northern Illinois traveled to Nebraska. Smith had a pair of sacks. The Huskies came away with a 21-17 victory.
Smith came away with a valuable lesson learned.
“We didn’t flinch. That was the best part. We played to our potential,” Smith said. “When they got a first down and the crowd went crazy, that motivated us just as much as it did them, I bet.
“It showed us that we can play with anybody. There’s nothing that we can’t do. We just knew that we were a better team.”
Smith was born in Texas, where his father, Chuck, was once in a Dallas Cowboys training camp. Chuck Smith was a linebacker at Middle Tennessee State. A neck injury ended his playing career.
Sutton Smith took up the sport when he was still in diapers, he said. That may have been a joke, but in Texas, that is also a possibility.
After the family moved to the St. Louis area when Sutton was entering the sixth grade, his football career took off. He had more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons.
But he broke his hand, requiring surgery, just before he was scheduled to make all the summer camp stops — at Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas State and more.
Northern Illinois was the only school to offer Smith a scholarship, back before the broken hand.
“I didn’t want to deal with the walk-on stuff. I was either going to get a scholarship or go into the military. Those were my only two options,” Smith said.
Smith did his research. He wanted to either learn to pilot Apache helicopters or go to the Army’s sniper school.
“I wanted the action. That’s my thing. I couldn’t sit in an office and tell people what to do,” Smith said.
Instead, he took Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey up on that scholarship offer. And he went along when Carey insisted his future was on defense.
“Defense was always my instinctual thing,” Smith said. “The worst thing you can do is go against the flow of a football team and create controversy and problems and you won’t see the light of day.”
Smith’s biggest asset is his speed. He believes he could still run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, even though he’s added 50 pounds since his high school running back days. His short stature also gives him a leverage advantage over bigger would-be blockers, Smith believes.
The proof is in the statistics. And on film. Opposing teams began gameplanning for him in the second half of last season, Smith said. He loves the challenge.
“I’m sure all Iowa knows what my tricks are, but they’re going to have to figure out what my new tricks are,” he said.
“It’s not like we’re going to go into Iowa thinking, ‘Man, I hope we can keep up with them.’ That’s not our mindset. We’re coming in there to punch them right in the face, just like we did at Nebraska.”
The Hawkeyes can’t say they weren’t warned.