Joniak: NIU's Sutton Smith Has Something To Prove, Talent To Burn

Jeff Joniak
March 03, 2019 - 11:01 am

NIU's Sutton Smith/Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports


INDIANAPOLIS (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Jeff Joniak wraps up his coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine with this report:

First impression

Confident, funny, driven, serious, excited – these words come to mind when describing my first introduction to Northern Illinois defensive lineman Sutton Smith. The kid with one Division-I scholarship offer out of the state of Missouri developed into a pass-rushing menace and will make a move to linebacker in the NFL.  

“I think they’re going to try to keep me on the edge or off the ball and just blitz from any direction possible. I’m the guy that likes to make mayhem and just destroy offenses. I don’t care where I’m at I’m just going to try to disrupt your whole scheme. That’s really it,” Smith explains.

Smith is a two-time Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, twice leading the nation in sacks. He tied for the FBS lead with 15 sacks, led the nation in tackles for loss (26.5) and led the nation in quarterback pressures. The All-American also helped NIU win the conference championship, his first as a player at any level. Some of his best production came against Power-Five Conference teams like Nebraska, Iowa, and Boston College. 


Second thought

With back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons in high school, Smith was recruited to NIU for offense. Kind of.

“They said I could start off doing whatever I wanted,” Smith said. “I think the intention was that I would probably get moved to defense. The way I got moved to defense was the real funny part about it all. We were in a freshman scrimmage period in fall camp. The quarterback fumbled the snap, it got kicked to an in-box safety, and I cleaned his clock.”

The next day he was moved to defense.

“Nobody wanted to offer me and I always felt left out in a lot of things. I just accepted it as what it was and nobody is going to tell me that I can’t do something anymore because I know who are they to say what I can and cannot do?”

The other part of the chip on Smith’s shoulder is family-related. His dad, Chuck, made it to Cowboys rookie camp but a neck injury derailed his chance.

“He’s my hero at the end of the day,” Smith said. Smith’s mother was a college volleyball player.

“We’ve had great athletes come through our family. My brothers could have gone to the NHL, they were just unbelievable freaks, but some decisions that were made and they didn’t get that opportunity. For me to be able to go all the way through with this and achieve my goals, and dreams and aspirations … I think my mom and dad are just more proud than anything of me, and I don’t think they have any doubts that I can do this.”


Third degree

Smith played in the 240-pound range early in 2018, and now is 233. Coming from a mid-major like Northern Illinois creates questions in terms of talent comparisons by some scouts and analysts.

“Conference play is hard everywhere, because those teams know who you are,” Smith said. “The reason why it’s harder for teams to play us out of conference is that they don’t know us. They never played us before. They don’t know how hard we play. All they have is the film, and sometimes the film doesn’t speak truthfully. They miss stuff, and guess what -- we get to wake up that morning and go out there and prove them wrong. That’s the biggest thing. That chip on your shoulder that teams looked over you. Guess what: I’m here now. Let’s face it off.”

Smith is viciously competitive. His first step is outstanding, but he is undersized. He said he watches a lot of tape of Denver’s Von Miller and Khalil Mack of the Bears for pass rush moves and their ability to stop the run.

“People never thought I would be able to bull-rush people, but yet I can. I mean, I’m 233-pounds, and I can put a tackle all the way back to the quarterback. The shorter you and stronger you are builds a lot more leverage whenever you play. You know Khalil Mack, yeah, he’s like 6’3” or something like that, but guess what, he’s as strong as an ox and he pushes tackles back and he just embarrasses them.”

Smith called Mack a beast.


Fourth and short

Smith had four defense/special team touchdowns in his NIU career and blocked a few kicks. He immediately factors in as a special-team dynamo, given his tenacious playing style. It will be interesting to see where teams work him out at his pro day as he looks for a call in the middle rounds of the NFL draft next month. 

Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.