Brandon Smith began his Penn State career in 2013 as a walk-on fullback, which essentially meant playing tight end, which also meant playing behind guys with NFL futures such as Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Adam Breneman and Mike Gesicki.
Expecting that to get him nowhere, Smith knocked weekly on his coaches’ doors, asking for a switch to linebacker, where he knew he could play. Smith was so unrelenting that coach James Franklin made the move.
Three years later, Franklin knows Smith was right.
“If you keep working hard, it's going to happen for you,” the coach said. “And that was Brandon.”
Smith, now a scholarship player who will make his second consecutive start, is among the unsung success stories of Penn State’s senior class. He will join 22 teammates, from future NFL players to fellow walk-ons, for Saturday’s Senior Day against Nebraska.
Had he not moved to defense, Smith isn’t sure that he’d even be playing football anymore. He simply would have continued on his career path in medicine, becoming perhaps an orthopedic surgeon or pediatric oncologist.
But that position change led to what Smith called the most memorable football season of his career.
“This year, more than any, has been the most meaningful to me,” said Smith, a nominee for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award. “I've just been really appreciative of this opportunity and playing with people like Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, and Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen, and all these big-name guys that I've gotten to play with and live with in the locker room. I think those are things that are going to mean the most to me.”
Standout student and a humanitarian: Smith, 23, is a Dean’s List student with a 3.81 grade-point average who completed his kinesiology degree last December and is working on a second degree in health policy and administration. Over the summer, Smith spent a week shadowing surgeons at Penn State Hershey Medical Center under the guidance of Dr. David Han, professor of surgery and radiology at the Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute.
During his visit, Smith met and spoke with patients (“He has a special talent,” Han said) and, near the end of his week, quietly told Han that he had to leave. Smith had committed to working with a church camp in his hometown of Lewisburg.
Penn State’s only married player, Smith has made several mission trips to Honduras with his wife, Andrea, who co-founded the nonprofit organization Honduran Soles, which provides shoes to children in need. Brandon and Andrea Smith, who attended Lewisburg High together, also volunteer at homeless shelters and for community outreach programs through their church.
Making his mark on field: On the field, Smith is a different person. He walked on at Penn State in 2013 as an offensive player, then found out a year later that Franklin’s offense wouldn’t need him there. So Smith asked to play defense — repeatedly.
“We’d meet with Brandon and we kept saying, ‘All right, we heard you, we heard you,’” Franklin said. “He just was so persistent. So persistent. He’d be on scout teams, special teams, and he'd be making guys look bad, with his effort and his tenacity and his perseverance, just day after day after day. Kept fighting for his opportunity.”
From that, Smith became a two-year contributor, earning a scholarship and making two starts in 2016, when Penn State sustained multiple injuries at linebacker. He tied for the team lead in interceptions last year and has been the primary backup at inside and outside linebacker this season.
Smith has been a positionally sound player who rarely allows tackles to go past him. Against Rutgers, Smith made 10 tackles and was named the coaches’ defensive player of the week
Average athlete: Regarding athletic measurables, particularly speed, Smith said he’s “pretty average.” The linebacker balances that by extracting the most from what he does have.
“I work hard with our strength staff to improve the measurable parts of athleticism,” he said. “But as far as determination and drive and just finding a way, that's something I can control while I'm playing. So I just try to take full advantage of that.”
The inaugural Jason Witten Award, named for the Dallas Cowboys tight end, recognizes a player who demonstrates “a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.” Smith is among 20 semifinalists. The winner will be announced in December.
Franklin called Smith a worthy candidate. A few weeks ago, Smith addressed the team about his perspective on not just accepting his role, but embracing it.
When Smith finishes medical school, Franklin said that he wouldn’t mind the linebacker returning to become Penn State’s team doctor. Han said Smith will be a successful one.
“What are coach Franklin’s four core values? Positive attitude, work ethic, compete and sacrifice,” Han said. “Brandon has all of that that.”