Preston Smith's career is an example of how Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen likes to develop players.
The defensive end was a lightly regarded recruit — at least by Southeastern Conference standards — and then started his career anonymously as a backup lineman. He slowly earned more time on the field as he got stronger, and now the 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior is one of the best players on a loaded Bulldogs' defensive line.
He made his presence felt in the Bulldogs' opener.
Smith, named SEC defensive lineman of the week, intercepted a pass and later blocked a field goal attempt that was returned by teammate Jay Hughes for a touchdown during Mississippi State's 49-0 over Southern Mississippi.
Mullen said Smith's ability to make game-changing plays is important, but it's his improved consistency that has been vital. He also said Smith is like many seniors — a veteran playing with desperation because he knows it's his last season of college football and final chance to impress NFL scouts.
"I think he's a guy that understands he would like to play football beyond college, and if he's going to do that he better take himself to another level and have a great year to help our team," Mullen said.
Smith didn't have a sack against the Golden Eagles, but was constantly a disruption in the backfield after busting through the line.
He had plenty of help. Veterans P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls, along with sophomore Chris Jones, make it difficult for opposing teams to pick someone to double team.
"We put a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Smith said on Saturday after the win. "We had a lot of missed opportunities, but it felt good to see other guys getting sacks."
Mullen said Smith's constantly improving football knowledge was a big contributor to last weekend's success. On the interception, Mullen said Smith recognized the blocking scheme and knew the play was a screen pass, so he didn't rush the quarterback and instead put his hands in the air, jumped at the perfect time and tipped the ball to himself for a highlight-reel takeaway.
"That's just some general football knowledge of guys as they get older, really paying attention to learn the game and do things the right way all the time," Mullen said.
The Bulldogs (1-0) host Alabama-Birmingham (1-0) on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. Smith and the rest of Mississippi State's defense will be charged with stopping UAB's running game.
The Blazers won their first game under new coach Bill Clark, running for 342 yards in a lopsided 48-10 victory over Troy. Because of UAB's ground-heavy attack, there might be less chance for Smith or his teammates to make spectacular plays.
"They're going to try to be a physical power team and run the ball at us," Mullen said. "We have to be stout there, but you also have to be very sound for all the play action shots and screens that are going to come off of it."
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