Controlled fury

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The play began with Telvin Smith's hand on the ground, the linebacker perched at the line of scrimmage like a missile about to be fired.

The snap comes, and Smith holds his ground, lingering for just a moment as the play unfolds in the backfield.

Demonte McAllister forces Miami quarterback Stephen Morris out of the pocket, and Smith immediately recognizes his target. He explodes to his right with Morris in his crosshairs. He closes with frenetic speed, raising his hands and pouncing like a bear, stripping the football and tossing Morris to the ground.

This was Smith responding to his most basic football instincts: Find the ball, attack the ball, make the play.

"He's chaos walking," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.

That's a label Smith happily accepts, but the colorful description belies the reality of his game.

For one, Smith is rarely walking. If he's on the football field, he's running, sprinting, leaping, attacking or hitting. The junior from Lowndes County (Ga.) High knows only one speed, and it's almost always faster than the opposition expects.

"I go out there and play hard every chance I get," Smith said. "If I get a chance to make a play, I'm going to capitalize on it."

The chaos part makes more sense, Smith said. That's how he arrived at Florida State, part linebacker, part whirling dervish of speed and athleticism with instincts that delivered results even when his assignments had been ignored.

That chaos is both a weapon and a burden, Smith admits. He is most comfortable playing loose and free, running to the ball and unleashing his fury on the man carrying it. But there are times when that exuberance is exploited, and the chaos suddenly envelops him.

"At times I end up doing the right thing and make the play, and other times I get yelled at," Smith said. "But I take it because it might be that one play or one chance that changes a game. Everybody knows I love to fly around and play ball."

Smith loves the chaos, but he's learning that there are limits. Now in his third season at Florida State, he's trying to find the right balance, trying to control the chaos.

"I feel like they're trying to coach me to a point where I'm assignment perfect, but at the same time I can go out there and make that instinctive play sometimes," Smith said. "I don't feel like they're trying to take that away from me. I feel like they're trying to build on it and make me a better athlete at the end of the day."

It's a lesson Smith has heard for years, but it hit home three weeks ago when he watched NC State chip away small chunks of yards in a torturous second-half rally by continually exploiting Smith's aggression.

The ball would be snapped, and Smith would hawk the quarterback. A moment later, a receiver glides past him on a crossing route, and his adjustments came a tick too slow. A second later, the ball is in the receivers hands and Smith is out of position to make the play.

"That game humbled me," Smith said.

In the two games since, Smith has found a balance, and his teammates have taken notice.

On the practice field last week, the chaos was still present, but there was something more. Smith moved with the same ferocity, hawked the football with the same zeal. And yet, that chaos seemed more refined.

"I could see it in his eyes in practice every day last week," said Tyler Hunter, FSU's nickel corner and Smith's former teammate at Lowndes. "He had a different kind of focus about him. Before the game, you could tell he was ready to play. I wasn't really surprised he went out there and did what he did."

What Smith did was make eight tackles, including the sack of Morris that caused the fumble that swung momentum back in Florida State's favor after the Seminoles fell into an early 10-0 deficit.

It was the best game Smith has played at Florida State, according to fellow middle linebacker Vince Williams, and the performance earned Smith the ACC's linebacker of the week award.

Watching the game film Sunday, Smith still saw flaws. On Miami's early drives, he was too quick to attack, and he found himself out of position. Controlling the chaos remains a work in progress.

"He came a long way," Hunter said. "He's the same type of player, but he's disciplined a lot more. He's focused on what he has to do and knows when an opportunity comes, if he did what he needed to do, he'd make the play."

It's a paradox -- balancing fury with precision, disruption with control -- but Smith is embracing it.

After all, there's something comforting about confusion. It's what Smith does best.

"That's it, that's creating chaos," he said. "That's all I like to do."