By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Preston Smith keeps getting bigger, stronger and better.
Fans and media alike can get a look at the defensive end now that Mississippi State has begun spring practices. Work began Wednesday, and all sessions are open to the public.
Spring can be a time for certain players to emerge as potential stars and to begin making a case to be a starter. Smith, a rising junior, has been a key reserve the last two seasons and could be one of those players.
He led the team in sacks last season with 4.5.
“Preston Smith is a guy that just happens to be around the ball, makes good things happen,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “One of the knocks on him coming out of high school by a lot of schools was his size and his size potential. And I think that kind of speaks to Matt Balis and his crew, how much they’ve developed the kid.”
Balis is MSU’s strength and conditioning coach. Between the Bulldogs’ Jan. 1 Gator Bowl loss to Northwestern and today, he’s been in charge of the players, putting them through their paces in weight and conditioning drills.
When Smith arrived on campus in 2011, he was a 6-foot-6, 225-pound beanpole. He was 245 at the beginning of last season, and Balis said on Tuesday that Smith is now up to about 255.
“His size has been pretty good lately,” Balis said. “He’s a true junior, I think he’s athletic, I think he’s explosive, he’s strong. He can run for days, he’s really a conditioned guy.
“So I think he’s got to be a great player for us, and I thought he took the steps necessary to do that this offseason.”
Head coach Dan Mullen like what he’s seen of Smith since last season ended.
“This is it. This is a big year for him coming in,” Mullen said. “Coming out of the offseason, looking on the depth chart, he’ll be breaking the huddle with the ones.”
It’s hard to know for sure if a player like Smith can pack on enough weight and muscle to play a position like defensive end. Balis said a lot of it has to do with “genetic potential,” and his program is designed to maximize that potential.
“We try to do a great job nutritionally with our ‘breakfast clubs’ and our training tables, especially the first couple of years of staying on top of their meals. Because that is a big deal, too, is how they are eating and how they are recovering,” Balis said.
“It’s based on genetic potential, of what his body can handle and still not lose the ability to be at his best on the field. How do we know? You really don’t know until they start training and start eating consistently and those kind of things.”
One of Smith’s strengths is his quickness, and so Balis has to be careful not to compromise that when bulking him up.
“It’s a hard balance,” Balis said. “Because any position you put weight on a person, you have to make sure you’re not taking away from their talent, taking away from their ability to move and be explosive.
“That’s a big thing now for spring ball; I watch and evaluate. Our job as a strength staff is to communicate with our coaches during practice and really watch and monitor and see how they move.”