There is no position on a football team under more scrutiny than quarterback. Senior co-captain Larry Smith has experienced how rewarding and difficult it can be as the signal caller during his five seasons on campus. Smith made his first career start in the Music City Bowl and led Vanderbilt to its first postseason win in 53 years. He's also battled injuries, criticism, and disappointing outcomes. Through it all, Smith has matured as an individual, maintained a positive attitude, and served as a leader in the locker room.
On Saturday, the Prattville, Ala., native will play his final regular season game at Wake Forest, the site of his collegiate debut in 2008. I met with Smith after practice Wednesday to discuss his Commodore experience, the Kentucky curtain call, and life after college.
Larry, this week the team is traveling to Wake Forest, the place you made your collegiate debut. What do you remember about that game?
"I remember the first half was miserable standing on the sidelines with freezing rain and freezing sleet. It was just was messy weather. Once Chris (Nickson) and Mackenzi (Adams) went down (with injuries), coach came in at halftime and said I was going in. I was excited and a little nervous at first, but I kind of settled down and threw my first touchdown pass to (Brandon) Barden. Unfortunately we lost the game though."
Looking back, is that game kind of a blur compared to what you know now?
"It was completely different being thrown in the fire. I wasn't getting any physical reps (in practice); just taking all mental reps. I played pretty good for the most part. It's completely different for me from a redshirt freshman to a senior. You get a better understanding of the game and everything slowed down."
Rewind to the Kentucky victory a few weeks ago. What did the postgame reaction from fans in the stadium mean to you?
"It meant a lot to the seniors since we've been through so much together. We've dedicated and invested so much time into this football program. For our seniors it's our last year, and it finally hit me that game and all of my emotions came out. It might be a little emotional for me Saturday as well. It's real emotional. I've seen the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows over the past four and a half years. We're trying to end this senior year on a good note."
When you talk about the highs and the lows, you play a position that's always under the microscope by media and fans. How tough is that to deal with as a college student-athlete?
"As a quarterback, you're a leader on the team. You have to man up and take full responsibility for the wins and the losses. I think it definitely helped me as far as my maturity over my four and a half years of being in college and playing in the SEC, the toughest conference, and getting to compete against some of the best athletes. It made me grow up really fast."
How has that experience been?
"It's been a blessing. Not too many people can say they have been a starting quarterback in the SEC. I feel it's a blessing. I made the most of my opportunity out here. It's really exciting but also kind of bittersweet as it comes to an end, but you can't play college football forever."
I know it hasn't turned out the way you might have wanted it to, but you've still had a very positive and encouraging attitude through it all. When did you decide that this was how you were going to approach the situation?
"Team first. That's always been my motto. You have to go out there and put the team first and be a big supporter and a leader. I want to motivate the team and help them do the best they can. I try to keep everybody's spirits up and try to keep the whole sideline motivated. I'm a captain as well so I want to maintain that and try to not let the downfall get to me. Even though it's been a little frustrating, at the same time, I'm a team player. As long as we get those wins, I'm excited. It doesn't matter who's out there playing. If we get those W's, I'm a happy man."
You felt it was your responsibility to be a good teammate?
"Yes, definitely. Only 11 men can play at a time so I understand that. Like I said, team first. I'm probably the biggest cheerleader on the sidelines. I'm really excited and just eager for the team to go out there Saturday and play well to end this regular season on a winning note."
What would you say to Commodore fans?
"I love the Commodore fans and have appreciated their support, not only for myself but also for the senior class. I appreciate the Commodore Nation as a whole, the coaching staff and Coach (James) Franklin. We are going to need them out there Saturday."
Since it's the week of Thanksgiving, what are you thankful for?
"I'm thankful for my family, friends, and teammates. This team is so close and I've gained a lot of friendships during my years here. It's going to be different with all of us going our separate ways in the next month and a half."
Are you getting ready to graduate?
"Yes, I will graduate in December."
What do you want to do after your Vanderbilt career?
"I'm going to train for the (NFL) next semester. I'm also taking the GRE next month as well and will apply to graduate school. I'm thinking about going into coaching. I've also applied for Teach For America. I've got a few options that I'm looking into right now."
But probably something in football?
"Yes, I love the game of football. I actually could see myself coaching in the next few years."
Have you picked up any tips from Coach Franklin?
"Yes. I've learned you have to be a high-energy guy. You have to be a players' coach as well. Coach Franklin is an excellent guy and he's doing an excellent job with the team right now. He's changing the whole culture and the whole mentality of everyone on the team."