Always be prepared. Never slip. This is the advice North Carolina sophomore linebacker Jonathan Smith gets from his dad during almost every phone call between father and son.
And it’s that advice that brings Smith to the empty team meeting room after hours.
Here, he and junior linebacker Cole Holcomb comb through film of the Tar Heels’ upcoming opponent. This week they’re studying for Saturday’s game against Duke.
“Pretty much every day before practice,” Smith said. “In between classes, after practice, we’ll go in there, and then right before we go home we’ll go in for some more film sessions.”
Smith and Holcomb have teamed up since Smith arrived at UNC in January 2016. Along with the film sessions, Holcomb prepares a paper of the defensive checks for Smith to study before every team meeting.
UNC’s matchup against Duke isn’t any old test. The game will mark Smith’s second time starting for the Tar Heels since the 6-0, 240-pound junior linebacker Andre Smith suffered a knee injury against Louisville, which will force him to miss the rest of the season.
Andre Smith led the Tar Heels in tackles against Louisville (11) and California (10), but sophomore defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge, who is standing in for injured junior defensive tackle Jalen Dalton, said the greatest blow is losing Smith’s leadership in between plays.
Whenever defensive morale was in jeopardy, or the opposing offense made a big play, Andre Smith would keep the group relaxed by cracking a joke during the next huddle.
“His attitude on every play kind of gets everyone else hyped,” Strowbridge said. “So I think that’s something that we might miss a little bit. But we’ll see how Jon can do that.”
For his first game as a starter, Jonathan Smith, 6-3, 230 pounds, impressed. He contributed three solo tackles and took command of the team.
“We threw him in the fire last week,” coach Larry Fedora said. “He played well. He didn’t play error free, and we didn’t think he would, but hopefully he’s gonna learn from those mistakes last week, he’s gonna get better. But I think he’s starting to feel a little bit more comfortable.”
But Fedora noted that Smith needs to improve with communication — a problem that plagued the Tar Heels in their previous two losses (35-30 to Cal on Sept. 2, and 47-35 to Louisville on Sept. 9) this season. According to Fedora, Smith as middle linebacker is “the quarterback of the defense,” so much of the responsibility to communicate rests on his shoulders.
The middle linebacker is also most responsible for making sure his teammates are lined up properly. Smith said mastering that job was the most challenging. He had plenty of practice being vocal in high school, but having the entire team rely on your guidance before every play is an entirely new challenge.
“In high school, if you didn’t get everybody lined up, you were the best guy on the field, so you could just go and make the play,” Smith said. “But in college, if you don’t get everybody lined up, it could be a touchdown.”
While Jonathan Smith navigates replacing Andre Smith, Strowbridge must step in for Dalton. Strowbridge said Dalton “will be back soon,” but his absence could be noticeable as UNC attempts to defend Duke quarterback Daniel Jones.
Between playing a few snaps against Louisville and starting against Old Dominion in the Tar Heels’ 53-23 win last Saturday, Jonathan Smith has learned to tame the butterflies in his stomach.
“Last week, I was a little nervous, because that was a big spot to be stepping into,” he said. “So I was just getting into things. I got out there, I got my first couple plays, and after that I was good. So this week, I don’t feel any pressure at all. Just ready to go out and play.”