LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jake Smith made his way down stairs and into an overpass tunnel lined with blackout-clad Louisville fans Monday. Opposing walls of chanting fans stretched more than a football field in length, from the tunnel entrance to the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium gate.
Card March was only the beginning of a night that saw Smith, a Jacksonville High grad, play on national television, before Louisville’s biggest home crowd ever, in the Cardinals’ debut in what we now call a “Power 5” conference.
Fast-forward an hour, and Smith is leading his team in warm-ups.
Three hours after that, he and his fellow offensive linemen are leading Louisville’s “run-to-win” drive to the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 31-13 victory over Miami in Louisville’s Atlantic Coast Conference debut.
Louisville fans had long awaited this coronation, wrapped in pomp and circumstance and a grandness of scale that fans of top SEC programs call normal.
In Smith’s 39th collegiate start, his team arrived in a way not seen previously, and Louisville arrived with Smith as one of its senior leaders.
“It’s pretty special, just to see,” Smith said. “I was thinking about it today, when we were walking in Card March. It’s almost a little overwhelming to see how the program has really taken off and been rejuvenated in the last four or five years, with Coach (Charlie) Strong and now Coach (Bobby) Petrino.
“Seeing the fans, seeing all the pageantry that goes into the game, everybody that was tailgating, and then seeing us come out and execute, playing against one of the big-name teams in college football history, it’s pretty special seeing how the foundation has been set.”
Big-time college football has come to Louisville, and it’s finally come to a Calhoun County son who was clearly an underrated prospect coming out of Jacksonville.
The one-time two-star prospect entered his senior college season on the watch list for the Rimington Award, given annually to the nation’s top center. This after he played one season at the position.
His self-sacrificing move back to guard in Petrino’s return season to Louisville will take Smith out of contention for a center’s award, but it hardly takes him out of contention for a future in football. Scouts from NFL teams including the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans attended Monday’s game.
Playing quick-side guard in Petrino’s line-flipping system allows Smith free-lance chances in pass protection and pulling opportunities in the running game.
“You have a lot of opportunities to be freed up and slide on protection, just because, naturally, people are going to want to blitz the strong side, so the tight end is going to be over there more often and there’s going to be more receivers over there,” Smith said. “I have a lot more opportunities to get more reach-backs, where my guy blitzes away. I’ll be able to come back and help the center or help the quick tackle.”
The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Smith is learning things that translate on the next level and getting the chance to show he has the feet for it. He has received positive NFL feedback about his versatility, athleticism and strength.
“I’ve heard some things,” Smith said. “You can’t really think about it too much because your senior season is so important to your evaluation.”
So, for now, it’s time to enjoy the big-time college level, which finally arrived in full force Monday and completed Smith’s elevator ride from the ground floor up.
Petrino lifted Louisville’s program in his first head-coaching stay, from 2003-06, but the Cardinals slipped under successor Steve Kragthorpe. Strong regained Louisville’s standing, leading the Cardinals to a Sugar Bowl rout of Florida two seasons ago.
Then opportunity knocked.
With the Big East crumbling and Maryland leaving the ACC to join the Big Ten, Louisville accepted the ACC’s invitation two years ago. That move culminated in the Cardinals’ ACC debut Monday.
The game drew a Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium-record crowd of 55,428, and the Labor Day happening brought a Kentucky Derby-day feel to Louisville.
To say the least, it felt good for the bright, gentle giant from Jacksonville. While in high school, he envisioned lots of college game days like that.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t want to go play at Auburn or Alabama,” Smith said. “I grew up a huge Auburn fan. I thought I was going to end up there. Before my junior year (2008), the coaching staff really liked me and told me, ‘We like you enough to where we want you to come play for us.’
“Then they switched coaching staffs. I was a little salty about that at first.”
Funny how things work out.
Smith found himself with a chance to start as Louisville’s right guard as a redshirt freshman. He started all 13 games and became first player in school history to be named to the Football Writers Association of America’s Freshman All-America team.
He started 12 of 13 games as a sophomore, missing only the Sugar Bowl because of illness. He was part of a Big East championship squad.
After playing right guard during his four high school and first three college years, including his redshirt year, he got the chance to show versatility at center in 2013. He started all 13 games and did well enough to make the Rimington watch list.
Strong’s move to Texas opened the door for Petrino’s return to Louisville. The new staff liked sophomore Tobijah Hughley’s development at center, so they asked Smith to move to quick-side guard.
“I think that might be Jake’s home,” Louisville offensive line coach Chris Klenakis said. “He can play center or guard. That’s the great thing. He’s a very versatile young man.
“We had another good center, and we were a little short at guard. We’re going to get our best five on the field, and Jake’s definitely one of our best five.”
No fretting from Smith about the Rimington Award.
“You can’t think about stuff like that,” Smith said. “Whenever you do everything for the team, the individual accolades will come, so you can’t think of it like that. I couldn’t care less.”
Outside of football, Smith completed his undergraduate degree in economics in May. He plans to take the Law School Admission Test and set up career options for life after football … whenever that comes.
“I couldn’t think of a better situation, just for my future,” he said. “Louisville is a city, one of the top 25 cities in the country, in terms of population goes, and you make so many connections. There are so many opportunities.
“Then, on the football field, I’ve been pretty fortunate with how my cards have played out. Then, to be a part of the uprising of Louisville football, it’s really special, and it’s a situation I wouldn’t change, looking back on it.”
JAKE SMITH FILE
High school: Jacksonville (2010).
Prep honors: Played for Roland Houston … honorable mention All-State … two-year team captain … rated two-star offensive lineman by Rivals.com and Scout.com … ranked as 111th-best offensive by ESPN.com.
College: Louisville (fifth-year senior).
College highlights: Has started 39 games at guard and center after redshirting in 2010 … named to Rimington Award watch list for 2014 … as junior, won Offensive Grinder Award … FWAA Freshman All-American as redshirt freshman in 2011.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.