Rozner: How NIU's Sutton Smith went from unknown running back to superstar defensive end

  • Sutton Smith returns a fumble for a touchdown on Nov. 15 against Western Michigan at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

    Sutton Smith returns a fumble for a touchdown on Nov. 15 against Western Michigan at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. Photo courtesy of NIU Athletics/Chris Anderson

Updated 12/9/2017 6:04 PM

It's something that's understood in DeKalb, with a nod of the head or a simple glance.

The common story of the uncommon. Always overlooked. Always underappreciated. Always the hard way.


It's an NIU thing.

Jordan Lynch is the definition incarnate. He had a single Division I offer to play quarterback and all he did was carry Northern Illinois to a BCS Orange Bowl, capping off his college career with a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.


So of course Sutton Smith had only one serious Division I commitment.

Naturally, he's a running back turned linebacker turned defensive end who might have been a slot receiver or safety.

Coming off the edge, Smith merely led the nation this season in sacks (14), tackles for loss (28.5) and quarterback pressures (73), when four months ago he would not have been recognized by name or face on his own campus, let alone find his name on so many postseason award lists.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds a year ago, few would have guessed he would spend the 2017 season offending tackles a half-foot taller and 100 pounds heavier.

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The Missouri High School Player of the Year as a running back his senior year, of course Smith was ignored by Mizzou and the rest of the country, and is now MAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Of course he sat in Nick Saban's office during an Alabama camp, when the head coach compared him to safety Vinnie Sunseri.

And, of course, Smith broke his hand the next summer, after his junior year in high school, and that meant no more camps, no more summer football and no offers.

Except NIU. Of course.

"I would probably be in the military if not for NIU because I couldn't afford college," Smith said while sitting in a football meeting room a few days ago. "I would definitely love to serve my country, but I'm so blessed that NIU offered me a chance.

"They said, 'You can play whatever you want. We'll figure it out.' "

During his first practice at running back, they began to figure it out when the quarterback fumbled the snap and the ball squirted into the box.


"A safety, good friend of mine, picked it up. I cleaned his clock. I felt bad afterward," Smith said with a wry smile. "Next day I came in and coach (Rod) Carey said, 'You're a linebacker.'

"Last fall camp (2016), I was doing OK at linebacker. I hadn't played defense since my second game sophomore year (in high school) because I was getting 40 carries a game."

Carey and his staff immediately noticed Smith had a lightning-quick first step.

"They brought a couple of us down to pass rush. They were looking for someone off the edge on third down," Smith recalls. "I went up against one of the older tackles and I just did a speed rush and beat him.

"I had no idea what I was doing. Wide receiver stance, just beat him. That same day they moved me to stand-up defensive end."

And Smith's career as an edge rusher was born.

"He's top five on the team in speed," Carey said. "He's as quick as any player I've ever coached. Ever."

But as a 200-pound, redshirt freshman playing behind a pair of seniors, Smith didn't get much of a chance to discover a rhythm in 2016, when he recorded a lonely sack.

So Smith spent last off-season eating. When he wasn't lifting, he was eating. When he wasn't watching film, he was eating. And when he wasn't eating, well, he was thinking about eating.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound defensive end did not garner any attention going into the 2017 season, but after setting several school records and making nearly every All-America team, you would think the conversation about his size would be over for now.

"It should be," says an exasperated Carey. "Anyone talking about it isn't watching film. The proof is on the film.

"The kid works his tail off, on the field, in the weight room, studying film. There's no magic fairy dust. He put on that weight eating right and didn't lose a step. Had to eat every two hours for eight months.

"He has a 3.0 GPA and he's in his major classes now and it's not easy for him. He has to work at it. He's dedicated."

Go ahead and call him small. Smith is too busy to worry about it.

"All I care about is what I need to do to be a better player, have more success and help my team," Smith said. "I agree with everyone who says I need to gain more weight. During the season you don't gain weight. Impossible for a student-athlete with all you have to juggle.

"I don't worry about losing any quickness. I gain the right weight. Do it the right way. This will be a big off-season for me, just like the last one was when I got to 230. I want to get to 240 the right way.

"If I can be 240 with the same speed and quickness, I mean, you have to beat a 300-pound guy who's not quicker than you, can't move his feet like you. Add the strength and I think it's a good combination.

"Anyone who has a problem with the height, I can't change 6-1," Smith laughed. "But sometimes I think it's an advantage with my ability to get under a tackle's punch. When I bend the edge, sometimes it's so low they can't get me unless they hold me."

Smith will not be a secret when the Huskies take on Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 in Detroit, just as he won't be a surprise next season after a monster year, including 9.5 TFLs and 4 sacks in 3 games against Nebraska, Boston College and San Diego State.

From this point forward, the opposition's offensive game plan will focus on Smith.

"What he can control is what he can control," Carey said. "He needs to get bigger and stronger and let his experience and work ethic and his football intelligence work for him.

"You can always get better. Every day you try to get better. And if teams have to put more than two people on him, we'll be pretty good."

Smith studies his opponents on film and watches as much Von Miller and Khalil Mack tape as he can find. He looks for tendencies in offensive linemen and great edge rushers.

He lifts, he gets to class, he eats and he watches more film. There's always more film.

"This is the hardest semester of my life academically, so my schedule is full every minute," Smith said. "But it's unbelievable how it's worked out. I love it here. It's a special place.

"We might not have everything that other schools have. Who cares? This is a family. Coach Carey says, 'Smart, tough, relentless.' I love it."

He's too small. He didn't get offers from the big programs. He's a running back playing defensive end. He works in DeKalb, Illinois.

Sutton Smith isn't supposed to succeed. And yet he does.

It's an NIU thing.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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