When he arrived on the University of Louisville campus four years ago, Marcus Smith fancied himself a quarterback. Still does, actually, even though he has transformed himself from a quarterback to a quarterback's worst enemy.
Smith was a three-star quarterback prospect in high school in Columbus, Ga., and hoped to continue his career as a signal-caller at UofL. But coach Charlie Strong took one look at his recruit and determined that Smith was better suited on defense.
Arm strength wasn't a problem. Accuracy was.
"He had a strong arm, but you didn't know where the pass was going," Strong said, laughing.
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford concurred with his boss's decision.
"Marcus was a quarterback for two days. You see that wall right there?," Bedford said, pointing to a wall about five yards away. "He couldn't hit that wall standing right here. The ball would be there, over there, he would have hit everything but that wall. So we knew right away he wasn't a quarterback."
At the time, they also didn't know he was a defensive end, where he has turned into a star on one of the most efficient defenses in the country. Smith was initially moved to linebacker, where he played in nine games as a freshman and on special teams.
As a sophomore, he was a part-time starter at end and had 12 tackles, including 5.5 sacks. Last season he led the Cardinals' defensive line with 29 tackles and was second in sacks with four while starting all 13 games.
This year the 6-foot-3, 256-pound senior is having a season to remember and has been one of the key reasons UofL ranks second in the FBS in total defense (244.5 ypg) and in scoring defense (10.6 ppg).
With four games remaining, Smith already has a career-best eight sacks, which ties him for seventh in the FBS. (At the other end, teammate and roommate Lorenzo Mauldin is No. 18 with six sacks). His thinks his goal of 15 sacks is within reach.
"I feel like I've touched up on my technique a lot better this year," Smith said of his maturation and improvement. "Last year my goal was to get 10 sacks and that didn't happen, so I just made my expectations a little higher. I wanted to get 15 sacks and really wanted to work on my fundamentals and technique. I feel like I'm getting off the ball better and faster, reading the tackles a little bit more better, studying film better."
Said Strong: "I'll tell you what has happened with Marcus that has helped him with his numbers is we've kind of floated him. What I mean by float, allowed to stand up or get down in the 3-point (stance). He's so athletic he can drop into coverage or he can put his hand on the ground and go rush the quarterback. The sacks he has has been fun.
"Thing is, he's beaten people one-on-one; it's not like he's just run through an open gap and tackled the quarterback. Even when we're three down and he's standing up, he's a guy who's gonna come off the edge. But it's good for him because he's developed, he has a lot of confidence now and he really believes he's a good player."
Now, about those quarterbacking days. . .Smith admits he had trouble connecting with a target.
"I was not that accurate, I can say that," Smith said, smiling. "I was not accurate at all. I can throw it real long; I'm not saying it would be too accurate, but I can throw it pretty far."
Smith says he still occasionally thinks about playing quarterback, but knows that the move to defense was far better for his future. Strong says Smith has a chance to make an NFL team as an outside linebacker because of his quickness and strength.
"When Coach Strong came to me about moving to defense, I didn't really care if I had to change," Smith said. "I was open to it because I just wanted to get on the field and help the team in some kind of way. Thank God, I threw a couple of bad balls because I'm in a great position right now, playing defensive end and loving it. It's paid great dividends and I'm ready to keep playing and keep working."
Smith and his defensive teammates could have another big game Friday night when they play winless Connecticut (0-7, 0-3 at Rentschler Field in Hartford (8:30, ESPN2). The Huskies are dead last in the FBS in sacks allowed, giving up a staggering average of five per game. UConn also ranks No. 116 in scoring offense (16.4 ppg), 117 in total offense (293.7) and hasn't scored more than 21 points in any game this season.