Written by: Scott Keepfer
CLEMSON – The football record book at The Citadel isn’t exactly chock full of monumental victories, but there have been a handful of memorable moments.
Foremost among them are four straight victories against FBS opponents from 1990-92, including a 38-35 victory at South Carolina in 1990 and a 10-3 win at Arkansas in 1992.
Carson Smith, a former Mauldin High standout who plays at The Citadel, wasn’t born when those victories unfolded, but he’s heard about the giant-killings of the past and knows all about capitalizing on opportunities, which explains why he’s had Saturday’s date circled on his calendar since enrolling at The Citadel in 2011.
The Citadel plays at Clemson Saturday at high noon, affording a small military school in Charleston a chance to shock the world and make some new history.
But Smith, a preseason All-Southern Conference linebacker who led the Bulldogs with 91 tackles as a sophomore in 2012, won’t be suited up for the game.
He’ll be sporting his No. 9 jersey, but will remain on the sideline courtesy of a season-ending injury he suffered last August, on the first day in full pads, on the second-to-last play of practice
Smith suffered a broken fibula and tibia and dislocated an ankle, ending what was shaping up to be the best season of his career before it had begun.
“It was completely a freak accident,” Smith said. “I took a step to make a tackle and my ankle stopped and my body kept going.”
Suddenly, there was no season opener, no showdown against Furman, no homecoming game and no cherished trip to Clemson to play in front of 80,000-plus at Death Valley.
No chance to flash his all-conference abilities.
No chance to play against Clemson center Ryan Norton, his former teammate at Mauldin.
“Sometimes I really wish I was out there,” Smith admits. “And of course I wish I could play against Clemson. Going to games at Clemson when I was growing up was one of my favorite things. But it is what it is.”
What it is has turned into a positive for Carson Smith. He realized quickly that there’s no way to turn back the hands of time, to start fall camp all over again or to get a re-do on his foot plant on the second-to-last play of the first full day in pads last August.
It’s a sign of Smith’s maturity that he’s handled it as well as he has.
Heck, I’m still pouting over missing my senior class trip thanks to a stomach virus – and that was 33 years ago.
Smith has taken it in stride, putting the injury behind him in short order and immediately focusing on getting back to where he wants to be, both physically and mentally.
“There was a good way and a bad way to look at it, and I chose the good way I suppose,” Smith said. “Now I have an extra full year to prepare and I’m going to have two more full seasons.”
That response comes as no surprise to Doug Shaw, who coached Smith at Mauldin.
“I’m sure he was chomping at the bit to play against Clemson, but he realizes what he needs to do,” Shaw said. “I know he’ll bounce back and be better than he was before. He’s such a phenomenal kid. Every coach would love to have a Carson Smith on their team.”
Shaw certainly did. Smith not only set himself apart academically and in the weight room, but also was a Shrine Bowl selection at Mauldin. Clemson showed some interest, but had linebackers Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward and Lateek Townsend in the fold.
“There was only so much I could do to compare to that,” Smith said. “All things led me here to The Citadel, and I think that was the better choice.
“I wasn’t brought up in the military lifestyle, but I was brought up with military discipline. I always knew ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’ and what to do and when to do it. So coming to The Citadel wasn’t a massive change.”
And perhaps a natural fit for a family with a history of split loyalties.
Smith’s grandfather is a big South Carolina fan.
Smith’s father, Kelly, played at Furman and was a linebacker and special teams headhunter on the Paladins’ national championship squad in 1988.
Smith’s older sister, Curren, is a Clemson graduate, which means all of the above should make for an interesting afternoon Saturday at Death Valley.
The game — the one he’d been pointing toward for so long – will come and go and Carson Smith will still be the same Carson Smith.
He’ll watch the action unfold from the sideline and still be able to bask in the moment of being on the field in front of 80,000 plus. He’ll feel the excitement and hopes to be privy to moments when The Citadel will get the best of the team he grew up cheering for.
“Everyone knows that Clemson’s faster and more athletic,” Smith said. “But I can promise you that we are more disciplined than they are.”
And sometimes that goes a long way on the football field.
Whatever the outcome, Smith will be philosophical. And excited about what his future holds.
“I’m going to miss playing against Clemson, but that’s alright,” Smith said. “Next year I’ll get to play at Florida State, then at South Carolina in 2015.”
Something tells me Smith would rather have a crack at the Gamecocks anyway.