I hope you've all looked at the articles or film on Mason Muragin before you read up on Calvin Smith, because checking out Muragin before you look into Smith will make you appreciate just what Illinois has in Calvin Smith. Smith's production as a high school junior is impressive, though not as impressive as Muragin's, yet he accomplished all of that with only a small fraction of the skill that Muragin demonstrates. Yet, Illinois was Muragin's only power five offer, while Smith counted at least 20 when the committed. The difference is Smith's athleticism, because Muragin's skill can be taught yet there's no way to duplicate Smith's god-given talents.
What does he bring to the Orange and Blue?
I'm sure anyone can see that Calvin Smith is an elite athlete. However, I'm not just excited by that but also by his length, balance and desire. Some profiles list Smith as standing 6'3 while others list him at 6'5. I don't especially care about that. What I care about is that Smith has long arms and legs of a person at least that height that will serve him very well once he learns to use his arms to ward off blockers. You see, while Mason Muragin has an advanced set of pass rushing moves that he uses to defeat blockers, Smith barely uses any technique at all yet he succeeds merely by trying to bat away the arms of offensive players who are trying to stop him. Not only that, but Smith uses those long arms to great effect in deflecting passes. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many deflections in a high school highlight.
Smith compiled 10 sacks and 29 tackles for loss with a decent but not great Ocoee High School football program that generally hovers around a .500 record but plays in Florida's largest classification, so consider that he racked up those stats against some of the toughest competition in the nation and that he did it without a lot of help. In fact, the thing that stands out to me in this highlights is that Smith really doesn't need much help at all to be successful in these clips. He's generally just making a line toward the ball carrier and busting his butt to get there. Again, this is a stark contrast to Muragin's tape, where he defeats his blocker with ease, yet often makes a big play after a teammate flushes the QB or traps the ball carrier who Muragin finishes. Not only that, but I always appreciate a player who excels under those circumstances since there's more upside to be had.
Aside from Smith's total lack of pass rushing moves, he's going to have to develop a more versatile defensive game when he gets to the Big Ten. Clearly he's been directed to run to the ball and make plays when he can but at Illinois I foresee that he's going to be playing the more advanced "small" linebacker role that Isaiah Gay filled last year. That means more outside run containment responsibilities and some short area pass coverage. I have no doubt that Smith has the athleticism to fill that type of role, but you never know how well a player will take to an adjustment like that. Some guys never do. However, even if that happens I foresee Smith being an effective college player in the "big" outside linebacker role with some added weight. Simply put, this guy is going to cause some havoc in offensive backfields.
How does he fit in?
As I mentioned in Mason Muragin's spotlight, its anyone's guess what the roles of the Illinois outside linebackers will be when Calvin Smith is first eligible to take the field in the fall of 2023. However, if he's going to be a "smaller" outside linebacker at that point, then his competition for playing time will be Seth Coleman, Shammond Cooper and Jared Badie. All three are also very good athletes who are capable of doing more than simply rushing the passer. While Smith is still raw and will probable need some time in the weight room, I could see him getting on the field just a bit as a true freshmen just to get his feet wet and see if he can make a play or two. If not, then look for him to be part of the mix in 2024 with an eye on starting in 2025. If he's blocked by one of the above players or doesn't take to his new varied responsibilities, I can easily see Smith playing well as a "big" outside linebacker similar to Owen Carney's role last year, or even an inside linebacker. Regardless, look for this guy to get on the field by his third year in the program and be a major contributor. For those of us who love recruiting, he's already an 8 on the 10 point excitement scale. The more casual fan will have to wait a few years, but Calvin Smith is a good bet to deliver excitement on the field as well.
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