Clemson has had its share of five-star recruits that arrived ready to make an immediate impact over the past several years.
Linebacker Shaq Smith was not one of them.
Smith was ranked as a five-star recruit by multiple outlets when he came out of high school in 2016. He was the No. 6 overall player in the country, according to Rivals, and he chose the Tigers over offers from Alabama, Florida State, LSU and others.
But Smith was unable to make an immediate impact after he arrived in the Upstate. In fact, he was unable to make much of an impact at all his first two years. He redshirted during his freshman season and had only 14 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2017.
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“I wouldn’t say it surprised me,” Smith said of his lack of immediate success. “I definitely knew I was going to have to learn. How much I was going to have to learn and how much I didn’t know. That was mostly what surprised me. Coming from IMG and being one of the top guys out of high school, I feel like I knew a lot of ball. But to get on this side and see how much of it I didn’t know, that was more surprising to me, like, ‘Wow, I still have so much to learn.’”
The learning process took time for Smith, but his persistence appears to be paying off.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables recently mentioned Smith as a player who has been impressive during the first couple of weeks of preseason camp.
“Shaq Smith is on the come up. He’s had a very good camp so far,” Venables said. “(He’s) just been more confident and sure of himself, playing a little bit more aggressively, being a little bit more detailed.”
Smith is a physically imposing defender at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds. He now appears ready to use his size and speed to help the Tigers try to return to the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive year.
“I feel like I’ve waited my turn and been patient, just been chopping away, and when the time is right, it’s going to be right,” Smith said. “I’m just in a position where when my number is called, I’m going to be ready … I can rush, I can definitely play in space, I can cover, I can bring all of those things, which we already have on the table.”
The fact that Clemson returns so much experience at linebacker is likely to prevent Smith from being a starter in 2018, but he should be able to contribute as a reserve, as well as on special teams.
“He’s gotta still compete. The issue that he has is we’ve got some other guys that are experienced in there too,” Venables said. “But I would be surprised if you don’t see him on the field more. He can play winning football for us. He’s done well.”
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney can also see a difference in the way Smith is playing now as opposed to the previous couple of years.
“He’s made some great improvement, he really has. He’s the best that he’s been since he’s been at Clemson. Really, really good progress,” Swinney said. “Hopefully, he’ll have his best year as a sophomore. He’s only had one year, so this is his sophomore year. Hopefully, good things to come this year and down the road.”