There are still times when Greg Smith shows the flash of talent that made him one of the top defensive line prospects in the nation. The challenge now for the former Tyner Academy star is to put together a complete game’s worth of the dominance expected from him rather than the random few.
Smith’s comeback career path continues Saturday night when Cumberland University visits Finley Stadium to play the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
Nicknamed “Green Mile” at Tyner because he looked as big as the John Coffey character in the movie by that title, Smith came to Cumberland around 350 pounds but has lost nearly 15 of the 30 pounds he was asked to drop. Since he arrived at the Lebanon, Tenn., school, Smith has felt more comfortable in his small-town surroundings.
He has two years of eligibility left at the NAIA school and registered one solo tackle and one tackle for loss in last week’s season-opening win.
“When he got here, he was a little out of shape,” said Cumberland defensive line coach Brian Waite, another Chattanooga native. “He’s still working to get to where he needs to be, but he’s getting there. We’re going to play him into shape. Once he gets into game shape, he will be a dominant force and become an All American at this level.
“Even though he was in fairly poor condition, he impressed me right out of the gate. At one of our first practices, he made the quickest move I’ve seen to get back to the quarterback. I knew he still had the ability to disrupt an offense. We just need him to get to a point where he’s consistent with it.”
It was Waite who rescued Smith’s career from the scrap heap. A former City High teammate of current Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Tony Brown, Waite took it upon himself to track down Smith and offer him a final chance in January.
As a 6-foot-3 300-pound Mr. Football Lineman of the Year at Tyner, Smith was a can’t-miss recruit when he signed with Auburn University in 2004. But he didn’t qualify academically and spent two years at Northeast Mississippi Community College, where his stock rose even more, creating an even saltier recruiting battle.
Rivals.com national editor Jeremy Crabtree listed Smith the nation’s No. 1 junior college defensive lineman, adding on his site “Smith should be able to dominate. It’s scary how good he can be.”
But after working his way through two juco years to re-sign with Auburn, Smith arrived on campus weighing nearly 360 pounds. Tigers coaches were furious and Smith eventually dropped out in the spring of 2007, never having played a down.
He still refuses to talk about his time at Auburn.
“We nearly killed him trying to get him back in shape,” Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley said. “It was very frustrating for everybody here, because we knew when he’s on and motivated, Greg Smith is a beast.”
Once he left Auburn and thought his football career was over, Smith stopped returning former Tyner teammate Demonte Bolden’s phone calls, embarrassed by the fact that his career had become a disappointment while Bolden was a starter at Tennessee. He even called a former Tyner assistant to apologize for not living up to his potential.
Last fall was the first time Smith remembers not having football in his life. When Waite called, it no longer mattered that he would be going from 90,000-plus-seat SEC crowds to a stadium with fewer fans than he played in front of at Tyner. Out of options, Smith needed Cumberland as much as the tiny program needed his ability.
“He was a big-time prospect coming out of high school,” Waite said. “That didn’t work out, but now he has this opportunity at hand and all he can do today is prepare for tomorrow.
“Greg is a very humble young man. He never wanted all that attention, and I think his personality is better suited for a small setting. But if he wants to work for it, gets back in shape and becomes what he can be, he’ll start getting a lot more attention all over again.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...