UNIVERSITY PARK - A year ago, all of Penn State's players were targets of an open market due to the NCAA sanctions, but the one who drew perhaps the most attention was offensive tackle Donovan Smith.
Bill O'Brien said Smith "had 50 scholarship offers" last summer.
For his part, though, Smith was committed to staying. He redshirted in 2011 and was about to enter his first season as a projected starter.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State’s Donovan Smith mugs for the camera during an “interview” with teammate Garry Gilliam during the Nittany Lions’ media day.
Like everyone in the Penn State camp, he was shocked by the severity of NCAA's heavy hand, but like most of his teammates, the more he pondered the big picture, the more he decided staying put was his best option.
He had already fit in at PSU, he was in a good place on the depth chart, the coach who recruited him, Larry Johnson, was still here, and he was excited about playing in O'Brien's pro-style offense.
Then there was the personal nature that is the recruiting process.
"I actually thought it was kind of funny," Smith was saying at media day as he sat on a rolled-up tarp, virtually anonymous, with the offensive linemen. "A couple schools that didn't offer the first time [when he was in high school] came with their pitch."
The mountain of a man - he's 6-foot-5, 327 pounds - has a big kid's smile, and he flashed it.
"[I'm thinking] Just a year ago, you didn't want me, and now you do?" he said. "I ignored all the noise."
Smith did consult upperclassmen whom he trusted.
"I had a brief conversation with him about it," senior all-Big Ten guard and Academic All-American John Urschel said. "It didn't seem to me that he needed much convincing at all."
Smith said he couldn't recall the schools that pursued him the second time around. To him, it wasn't important.
"It was a better opportunity here," he said.
Smith started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman and certainly can take some credit, along with the rest of the offensive line, for breakout seasons enjoyed by Matt McGloin, Allen Robinson, Zach Zwinak and the Nits' stable of tight ends.
But the bar is now raised.
"Donovan had a typical freshman year," Mac McWhorter, the Lions' offensive line coach and the national assistant coach of the year in 2008 while with Texas, said. "He's a gifted player. He did some really good things, and he did some things that weren't so good. After a year of starting, the level of tolerance for mistakes isn't the same."
No. 76 understands.
He cites "pass-blocking technique, hand placement and my kick slide, definitely being more physical on run blocking, moving my feet more and engaging the second level" as priority areas of improvement.
"No more knocking the rust off of me," he said. "A lot of excuses [last year] were quote-unquote excuses - first year playing, got my feet wet. Now it's time to produce."
McWhorter tells every player but especially the ones with NFL written all over them, "You won't be any better than you expect to be."
Some have called Smith the Lions' best offensive line prospect since Levi Brown, the last PSU lineman to be drafted in the first round (2007).
His longterm vision is "definitely" to reach the next level - one of the PSU program's new slogans (it says so on the front of the media guide) - but he's not rushing the development process.
By rule, he could be eligible for the 2014 draft.
"I'm just taking it one day, one year at a time and not looking too far into the future," he said. "You never know what can happen. I'm just here at Penn State to play my games and my years at Penn State. Whether it takes me to the next level, or not, only time will tell. But I've definitely had the thought and dream of going to the NFL."
And he figures he's in a perfect offense to learn.
"With Coach O'Brien coming from the Patriots and everything they do, he's kind of like a prep for the league in terms of pro-style, protections," he said. "It definitely benefits all of us who are honestly trying to go pro."
Smith was born in New York and lived there until his early junior-high years, at which point he moved to Owings Mills, Md. - which happens to be the site of the Baltimore Ravens' training camp.
"I'm a diehard Jets fan, but I slowly became a Ravens fan," he said. "I see those guys all the time."
It helped when he bumped into Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' all-pro offensive tackle recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at a local grocery store.
"It was one of the greatest days of my life," Smith said, smiling. "For the longest time I've idolized him and tried to be like him and just seeing him in the store, out and about, was like a dream come true. It was just so funny. I think he was buying diapers."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.