Seeing the mountains every day and knowing there are trout nearby to be caught gets Mark Smith excited about being a new resident of the Centennial State.
“I love the state of Colorado, I love this university, I love the geography,” said Smith, the new inside linebackers coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. “I love being here, and I think that matters when you are in this profession, when you go from one state to another. … I am an outdoors guy, so it doesn’t get much better than this.”
Smith, 43, is also a football guy and he’s thrilled about his new role with the Buffs. Officially hired in February, Smith hit the field for the first time this week, as spring practices got underway.
“I am excited for spring ball … to see how they go out and play,” Smith said. “We don’t have any starters going into this. We’re going to rotate guys, we’re going to play guys at both our inside ’backer spots and cross-train them. But I am excited to see what they do and what their strengths are.”
Senior Nate Landman, who has been first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons, won’t participate in spring as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Freshman Mister Williams is also out with an injury, while Notre Dame transfer Jack Lamb won’t join the team until the summer.
Junior Jonathan Van Diest, who has starting experience, and Oklahoma transfer Robert Barnes are the most experienced of the group this spring. Junior Quinn Perry, returning freshman Marvin Ham II and incoming freshman Zephaniah Maea are also competing.
Smith’s first priority was getting to know the players.
“I called them in each individually in the first several days that I was here and just sat down and had a conversation with them and explained who I am and what I am all about, so they get to know me,” Smith said. “We didn’t talk football at all the first time.
“It is a great room of personalities.”
On the field, Smith and defensive coordinator Chris Wilson are taking the approach of tailoring the defense to the strengths of each player.
“Whatever you do well, we’re going to custom fit it to you,” Smith said of the message to players.
“The players in the room have been very receptive. I feel like every one of them feels like OK, I’ve got a chance. … I feel like I have a good group of human beings in the room first. Usually when they are good human beings and do things the right way, now we go get them on the football field and let them turn loose and play ball. It is usually a good combination.”
Smith is excited for his opportunity, as well. He has been reunited with Wilson, as they both worked at Oklahoma in 2008 – Wilson was the Sooners’ defensive ends coach, while Smith was a quality control coach, working with linebackers.
“Sometimes it comes full circle with people in this business,” Smith said.
Since that year at Oklahoma, Smith has coached in high school before stints at SMU and Arkansas. He interviewed with CU head coach Karl Dorrell for a position on the staff a year ago, but wound up taking a job as the defensive coordinator at Long Island (N.Y.) University.
LIU’s fall season was canceled because of COVID-19, but Smith said it was still a valuable six months.
“I joked with all my friends there, ‘I am the best defensive coordinator in the history of Long Island football. Nobody moved it a yard, nobody scored a point, nothing. I didn’t give up a thing,’” Smith said.
“I had a great experience there. … It was an intensive experience, not knowing really what was going to happen. I learned a lot of things along the way that I know will help me out in the future going forward.”
In addition to Smith’s varied experiences, Dorrell views him as a quality teacher and communicator. It also helps that Smith, a Texas native, has extensive experience coaching in a state that is a recruiting hotbed for the Buffs.
He also brings energy to the table.
“I am an upbeat guy,” he said. “I like positive people that are active and on the move and on the go.”
Smith’s latest move is one that he didn’t expect but always had in mind. He grew up in Texas at a time when CU was a national power in football – and is now trying to help the Buffs get back there.
“I remember watching Colorado play all the time when I grew up in Texas,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘What a cool place. It would be great to be there.’ And then here we are all these years later.”