Preston Smith got the call around 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. His daughter, Lauren Marie Smith, had been born in Atlanta. On his cell phone during those early morning hours, he stared at a picture of his little girl. And in that moment, everything changed.
Smith, who had flashed talent but never really put it all together in his three seasons at Mississippi State, knew he had to step up, starting in Memphis where his Bulldogs were preparing to face Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
That night, he racked up six tackles and a quarterback hurry, and was named the game’s defensive MVP.
Nine months later, he took the field as a senior and picked up right where he left off.
Week 1 against Southern Miss, he had an interception, blocked a field goal, broke up a pass and registered a quarterback hurry. He was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.
Week 2 against UAB, he had five tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown. He was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week again.
Week 3 against South Alabama, he picked up two sacks, blocked a field goal and forced a fumble. He became the first player ever to be named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for three straight weeks.
Week 4, just for good measure, he went out against LSU and had two tackles for loss and a sack. He earned Senior Bowl National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“I feel like she’s my good luck charm,” Smith said of his daughter.
Before every game, he sees her. After every game, the two spend time together. Thinking about all the things he didn’t have growing up as one of four kids raised by a single mother, he knows he must do better for her.
“It makes you work hard knowing you need to provide for someone else,” he said. “It’s not only you anymore. You have to work to provide for them and give them a life.”
With four games down, Smith knows he can count on at least eight more. Over that time, he has to play desperate, he said. He has to play like he has something to prove.
The NFL, he said, is watching.
It’s a point his head coach, Dan Mullen, drove home before the season ever started.
“Do you want to play at the next level?” he asked Smith.
“Yes,” Smith replied.
“Great,” Mullen said. “You have nine months to prove that because right now you don’t have much of a chance.”
Mullen’s message during that one-on-one conversation: “Be desperate every single day to prove you can go to the next level.”
During his first three years at Mississippi State, that idea might not have gotten through to Smith. He was developing nicely from being a former three-star, middle-of-the-road prospect, but he hadn’t turned the corner.
When he heard he had 12 more games left in his career, the light came on.
“That hits you in the face of how desperate you have to be,” Mullen said.
“He was 6-foot-5, long guy, who was playing at 260 pounds. He had potential and was explosive and athletic. Now he’s 6-foot-5 and 270-plus pounds making all the plays we always expected to make.”
With his little girl in his thoughts and the dream of a future in the NFL suddenly within reach, Smith is playing like a new man.
Through four games, he’s been a star. Against Texas A&M on Saturday, we’ll see if he can keep up his streak of award-winning performances.
But no matter what, he’ll have the same goal going into the game.
“How am I going to show people I’m better than what the past has shown?” he said.
“You have to play every game like it’s your last.”
And in his case, you have to play every game as if your family’s counting on you. It’s worked well for him so far.