When Jason David first met San Jose State's Keith Smith, there was nothing about him that screamed future football star.
Smith was a 5-foot-4, overweight eighth grader. David knew a little something about football, having won Super Bowl XLI as a cornerback with the Indianapolis Colts. But Smith was determined to make it in football, and asked David to teach him everything he knew. And by everything, he meant everything -- not only what it took to be great on the field, but off the field, too.
“Most guys want to go to the NFL, but they don’t want to put in the work or effort to get there,” David said in a phone interview. “One of the things that stood out about Keith was he was so eager for knowledge, he was so eager to get better, he was willing to do whatever it took. He studied film, worked out on weekends and got better and better.”
Now Smith is one of the best young players in the nation. The San Jose State linebacker has grown to 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds and was named a Freshman All-America after registering 115 tackles in 2010. That was tops among all freshmen on the FBS level. Not only that, he became the first San Jose State football player to make the FWAA Freshman All-America team since its inception in 2001.
Smith credits David, now his brother-in-law, for helping prepare him for the rigors of the college game.
“He’s been my biggest influence football wise and a big brother to me,” Smith said. “He just taught me to never be satisfied and always just have a mentality of trying to be the best and never settle for less.”
Both Smith and David credit the summer between Smith’s junior and senior seasons in high school as a turning point for him. They worked out together the entire summer, watched film together and lifted weights together.
“He went from being an OK player to being a dominant player,” David said.
David recalled one play in particular that senior year, when Smith made a goal line tackle on fourth-and-goal in overtime which sent his team to the next round of the playoffs. Smith has always been a sure tackler and that was evident last season, when he was pressed into major duty as a true freshman because of injuries at San Jose State.
The situation was so bad, Smith took all the reps in practice and took every snap in the final nine games of the season. He could not keep his weight up, and played at a paltry 208 pounds. He was so sore, he would take ice baths every day after practice and on Sundays as well.
But Smith was just grateful for the opportunity to play.
“It was deer in the headlights at beginning but then I started settling in and started playing football and playing with Vince (Buhagiar),” Smith said. “We started to click later in the season. That’s when I started having fun, when I started playing better.”
Smith has put on 20 pounds in the offseason thanks to the help of new strength coach Dave Forman and looks like a completely different player. Coach Mike MacIntyre predicts a much better year because Smith is bigger, stronger and more comfortable in the defense.
“I made a cut up of good plays and bad plays he had last year,” MacIntyre said. “He said, ‘Golly, I did have a lot of bad plays, but a lot of it was alignments or getting confused. I don’t think that will happen near as much this year for him. Strength wise, he’ll be able to be more physical on blockers and get off blocks and run through tackles and be a more punishing tackler.”
No doubt Smith has grown into a bona fide college football player. He can thank David in part for that.
“I still call him my little brother but he’s so much bigger than I am,” David said. “It’s incredible to see that transformation.”