The two decisions were made by Shaq Smith a little more than three years apart.
Each not only affected Smith’s college football career but the Maryland program.
The first came in early January 2016 when Smith, who played his first three high school seasons in Baltimore before finishing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., announced at the Under Armour All-American game that he was heading to Clemson.
The announcement came a little over a month after DJ Durkin was hired as Maryland coach. Mike Locksley, who had served as the team’s interim coach when Randy Edsall was fired midway through the 2015 season, headed to Alabama as an offensive analyst under Nick Saban.
Smith, rated the No. 3 inside linebacker prospect in the country by the 247 Sports Composite rankings, crossed the Terps off his list when Locksley wasn’t promoted. Unfortunately for Maryland, so did others including quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. and linebacker Keandre Jones.
“I think when Coach Locks took the job at Alabama, that made the rest of the guys think, ‘He’s going to one of the best programs for himself, so why don’t I go to one of the best programs for me?’ That made everybody disperse,” Smith said last week.
The second decision by Smith began to formulate in December, when Locksley was hired at Maryland after three years with the Crimson Tide, the last two as offensive coordinator. The idea of joining Locksley came to Smith as he watched highlights from the coach’s introductory news conference.
“Seeing him come back and listening to him in his press conference and talking about this is his dream job, I think he wanted always to be doing it at home,” Smith said. “That definitely pulled me back in, reeled me back in. That’s the reason I’m here now.”
Smith, who graduated from Clemson in May and transferred in June with two years of eligibility remaining, is now finding out what it’s like to play for Locksley.
In a matter of weeks, Maryland fans will find out how good the 6-foot-2, 251-pound Smith — a former four-star prospect — will be in a full-time role for the Terps, who will hold their first intrasquad scrimmage Saturday. He was a productive reserve with Clemson (30 tackles, a sack and an interception over 213 snaps in 28 career games) on defense and a key player on special teams for the defending national champions.
“The way I look at it, you know, it’s not a secret that I’ve won at the highest level [of college football],” Smith said. “The things I learned at Clemson, throughout the locker room, throughout the coaching staff, I just try to bring here, incorporate here and spread it throughout the locker room. Try to lead by example. Not so much talk about it, but be about it. I feel like guys have been taking notice of that.”
Not that leaving Clemson, where he was expected to contend for a starting role this season, was easy.
Smith talked with his mother, Shenika Brown, and according to Smith, they prayed about his decision.
“I was telling her, ‘This is one of the biggest decisions that I’ve ever made in my life, one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in my life,' ” Smith said. “As my mom talked to me, she said, ‘Decisions like this will only get harder. Later down the road, you’ll look at it that this wasn’t as hard as some that you’ll have to make.’ She stayed in my corner.
“We came to an agreement that I got everything I needed out of Clemson. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. She was like, ‘It’s totally up to you. Coming home and playing in front of your family and friends, that’s an opportunity you’ll never get.’ Now I felt it’s time for me to actually get on the field and play. Throughout the process, I was thinking, ‘Why not do it for your home state and your hometown?’ ”
Brown, a single mother of two sons, was Smith’s first football coach, teaching him how to throw a ball properly, and after he seemed hesitant to hit opposing players in his first foray into a competitive youth league, knocking over the trash cans at their house. Coincidentally, Smith’s mother left her adopted hometown of Baltimore after a decade to return to her hometown of High Point, N.C., after her youngest son left for college.
“I tried to simplify things so to speak,” Brown said in a telephone interview Monday. “I know there’s nothing simple about it at all, but just trying to encourage him to look at the simple way of picking versus the hard way of deciding where to go.”
It’s a decision Jones, who along with Haskins chose to play at Ohio State after Locksley left Maryland in 2015, made earlier this year. Jones has one year of eligibility remaining and received a waiver from the NCAA last week that will allow him to play this season. It seems likely that the two transfers will start as outside linebackers or rush ends in whatever alignment defensive coordinator Jon Hoke uses.
“Ever since I’ve known Keandre, it’s been playing against Keandre,” Smith said. “To now be on the same team as him, I’ve seen him work. He’s always been a guy I wished was on my team. Just knowing you have a guy of that caliber on your team, that’s a warm feeling to know somebody who is going to win.”
Smith and Jones are among five transfers, including redshirt junior quarterback Josh Jackson and graduate transfer tight end Tyler Mabry, who will either start or play a significant role for a Maryland team looking for its first winning season in five years.
“Coach Locksley hit on it when he said, ‘The world doesn’t know how much talent is on this team,’ ” Smith said. “I had no idea how much talent is on this team until I got here. I definitely think something special is coming along in this locker room.”
Along with his connection to Locksley, another lure was the hiring of fellow Baltimorean Cory Robinson as the team’s defensive backs coach. Smith met Robinson when his mother learned about Robinson’s Next Level training program when her son was in middle school. Their relationship continued when Robinson was coaching at Calvert Hall, where Smith played two seasons before going to St. Frances for a year.
“He definitely played a huge role helping me make this decision,” Smith said of Robinson. “Coming into this environment and seeing him, at first it was like shell-shocked. The last time I had seen him coaching was in high school. This is the first time me seeing him coaching at this level and him seeing me playing at this level. It was a big moment for both of us.”
But the biggest draw was Locksley. Two seasons ago, after Alabama beat Clemson for the national title in the Sugar Bowl, Smith and his family were walking down a street in New Orleans when they bumped into Locksley and his family. As often happens, the group took a selfie that Smith kept in his phone.
“A couple of days after I got here, I sent it to him,” Smith said. “We joked about it and talked about all the times we played against each other.”
Locksley has seen the growth in Smith from the player he first recruited a few years ago.
“You would hope, like we all do, we get better with time, and with the experience,” Locksley said Monday after practice. “The one thing to notice, at Clemson Shaq played inside linebacker, and for us he’s playing outside linebacker and to me that allows a little less thinking, a little more react and get the ball and chase the ball and rush the passer, which I think are all really strong traits and skills that Shaq does really well.”
Smith has already made an impact, according to Locksley.
“The leadership stuff, I really like what I see out of him, and how he handles himself and how he carries himself in the locker room,” Locksley said. “Usually when a new guy comes in he’s got to earn the respect of guys. He’s done that pretty quickly, and not by being a vocal guy. People respect how he works and obviously it’s a byproduct of the program he just came from and the success they’ve had. I think our players are following the right guys.”
As much as Smith is looking to the future at Maryland, it’s hard not to look back to when he was a senior at IMG and thinking about being part of what was then labeled “The Movement” by Haskins and former Terp Adam McLean.
“I still remember me and Dwayne and Keandre — all the local guys — were on board with staying home [if Locksley was hired],” Smith said last week. “I could see all of us staying at home. Who knows where Maryland would have been right now if that had been the case?”