By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Taran “T.J.” Smith entered Muskegon High School wanting to catch footballs for the Big Reds.
But Coach Shane Fairfield had other ideas for Smith.
“They put me at (linebacker) my freshman year,” Smith said. “I wanted to be a wide receiver and Coach Fairfield put me at linebacker – and he was right.”
Steering Smith to defense has paid huge dividends for Fairfield and the Big Reds. He’s established himself as one of the top linebackers in the state with his physical and mental approach to the game.
Smith (6-0, 205) will lead the defense again Friday night when the unbeaten Big Reds (8-0, 4-0) host cross-town rival Mona Shores (7-1, 4-0) in a showdown for the O-K Black Conference championship.
It’s another big game for Smith, who helped lead Muskegon to last year’s league title and Division 2 state runner-up finish.
“We will treat it like a normal game for us,” Smith said after a recent practice. “There’s a lot of hype and a lot of media will be here. It’s a test for us to see if we can stay focused on the task at hand.”
Smith’s talent at linebacker is well documented. He led the Big Reds last year in tackles with 106. He’s the leader again this season with 74 tackles, including 40 solos, 19 for lost yardage, and four sacks.
Smith plays the “Buck” linebacker position. He blitzes, covers running backs and has certain zone responsibilities.
Fairfield projects Smith as a strong safety in college and compares his talents to safety Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“There’s not a better sideline to sideline and screen guy than T.J. that I’ve coached,” Fairfield said. “He’s very athletic and fast. He’s a 4.6, but he’s faster than that. He runs a 4.5 in football.”
Fairfield, a defensive specialist, has been grooming Smith for a long time to lead the Big Reds’ defense. He especially likes Smith’s mental toughness.
“He’s a student of the game and never shunned away from coaching and criticism,” Fairfield said. “I’m hard on him. In 7-on-7s I’ve put him in as many intense situations that he could be in, so when it comes to the games, things slow down for him. Most players will turn away from the intense coaching, but he accepts it.”
Mental toughness has long been a strength for Smith, an A-B student who wants to become a civil engineer.
And Smith doesn’t like to waste time when it comes to important matters.
“I think I take stuff way more serious than everybody else does,” Smith said. “Some people are still immature and still like to play a lot. They don’t realize when it’s time to buckle down and start being serious and working hard. If there is a task at hand, I like to do it the best way and the fastest way. I just want to be serious and focused.”
Smith, who also plays the drums in the marching band and gave up the conflicting drum major job, is focused on the Mona Shores offense this week. The Sailors are as athletic and efficient on offense as any opponent on the schedule this season.
That means Smith and the Big Reds’ defense must be ready for the Sailors’ potent veer attack.
“When it comes down to it, we have to make sure we are lined up right with the new packages that we have entered and make sure we hit everybody,” Smith said. “We have to make sure they don’t get too many yards every time. We have to stay focused on the alignment before we go flying out there.”
Fairfield has watched Smith blossom into a quality linebacker and will depend on his senior for leadership with more at stake the rest of this season.
“It’s been a pleasure to see him come up and grow and be such a gifted person,” Fairfield said. “I have a lot of comfortable feelings going into big games knowing No. 12 is on my side. It’s been good having him for two years and having that leadership out there.”
Smith likes playing linebacker for the opportunity to make jarring tackles on opponents. He credits Will Hunt – a standout linebacker on the 2013 team – for getting him ready to lead the Big Reds this season.
Smith would like to play football at Eastern Michigan University, but will consider all his options after the season.
In the meantime, Smith just wants to keep this year’s magical season going all the way to the state finals again at Detroit’s Ford Field.
“Hopefully it ends the right way,” Smith said. “I want that ring on my finger. Right now I can’t see it.
“I don’t want to look too far ahead. I will just take care of business this week, and as the weeks go on, I just want to make sure we focus on that team and not look too far ahead.”