By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt’s season-opening win at Middle Tennessee felt like a home game for Emmanuel Smith.
Smith, a senior inside linebacker for the Commodores, grew up in Murfreesboro with a father, Demetrius, who played running back and linebacker for the Blue Raiders. Thus, Vanderbilt’s 28-6 victory over Middle Tennessee on Sept. 2 had extra meaning to the Smith family.
“My house is about 10 minutes from MTSU,” said Emmanuel Smith. “Basically, it was like high school again.”
But exactly who was Smith’s father rooting for that day?
“His blood is thicker than his connection to MTSU,” Smith jokes.
Fortunately, Smith’s family has plenty to cheer for now that the senior has blossomed into an impact player on Vanderbilt’s defense. He served as a key reserve in the secondary and linebacker corps during his first three seasons on campus, but this fall Smith has emerged as a breakout player in the middle of the Dores’ defense.
Against Middle Tennessee, Smith set a career-high with six tackles before eclipsing that mark with 10 total stops in last Saturday’s 42-0 win over Alabama A&M. The senior led the Dores in that category in both games and has chipped in 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack, as well.
Now Smith is living up to expectations cultivated by head coach Derek Mason. The Dores entered the season without departed linebacker Zach Cunningham, a consensus All-American in 2016 and second-round NFL draft pick. Prior to fall camp, Mason was asked to name the linebackers he most wanted to keep on the field as he looked to replace Cunningham.
“Yeah, Emmanuel Smith and Oren Burks,” Mason said. “They’re different than Zach, but they have some of the same attributes.”
Smith, whose younger brother, Josh, is a junior outside linebacker with the Commodores, said he embraces his coach’s praise.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden -- it’s more of an opportunity,” Emmanuel Smith said. “Oren and myself, we see ourselves as leaders. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to know when to push and when to pull.
“What’s worked best for me is looking to my right and my left and knowing the guys beside me have my back. It’s just allowed me to play fast. It’s allowed me to see things.”
Smith has played no small part in Vanderbilt’s stellar defensive start to 2017. The Dores enter Saturday’s matchup with No. 18 Kansas State (6:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU) ranked first in FBS in red-zone and third-down percentage, second in scoring defense and third in total defense. Vanderbilt has allowed just six total points and one touchdown in two games.
But Smith knows the road gets tougher in the coming weeks. Kansas State is the first of four straight ranked opponents for the Commodores. That stretch represents a chance for Vanderbilt to turn heads at the calendar flips to October.
For now, however, Smith has just one team on his mind.
“Everybody on the team is doing what Coach Mason says, which is to stay where our feet are,” Smith said. “We’ve got a gauntlet of games coming up, but right now we’re all about the next one, and that’s Kansas State. We know our focus must be 100 percent on the task at hand.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.