Coming into pre-season camp prior to his junior season at Camden High School, Tyrel Smith was a player the football staff thought could be a good player but one without a true position.
Standing 6-foot-3 and then weighing in at 180 pounds, Bulldog head coach Jimmy Neal was looking to get Smith somewhere on the field. After having received some playing time at a defensive end post which was crowded to begin with, Smith was moved to linebacker in a move designed to add depth to that position. All Smith would do was to earn a starting berth by the opening game of 2013. He has not slowed down since.
In two seasons, Smith rang up 223 tackles with his 126 stops last fall. That latter figure tied the inside linebacker for the team lead with safety Nelson Semple.
If there ever was a late-bloomer, Smith would be that player. And on national signing day, Newberry College snagged the services of the ball-hawking linebacker who was added to the Wolves’ strong signing class.
"We were just looking for a place to Tyrel to play," Neal said of the move to put Smith at linebacker. "We had him at defensive end, but we didn’t feel like he could beat some people out that we had there and he was running as a backup.
"We had a depth problem at linebacker and when we put him there, he was outstanding. Tyrel became a tackling machine for us. He’s had a great career here."
Smith had a breakout junior campaign in which his 97 tackles (with 53 solo stops) were second on the team. He also registered a sack with one quarterback pressure while forcing a team-best three fumbles. That set the stage for last fall when his 74 solo tackles led the 5-6 Bulldogs. He also had a pair of sacks to go along with four quarterback presses and nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Those numbers were attractive to Newberry and assistant coach Steven Flynn, who was in charge of Smith’s recruitment.
As he made his official visit to the Newberry College campus, Smith said he liked what he saw and heard from coaches and others whom he came in contact with at the school.
"I like that it’s a small campus and there are a lot of athletes and the tutoring programs for athletes, among other things," he said of his reason for choosing Newberry. "They have a criminal justice program which has internships with SLED. And their football team does pretty well, too."
While a young man of his height may lead to his being wooed onto the basketball court, Smith laughed and said he gave hoops a spin but it was no match to his football-playing skills.
"Football was always number one for me," he said. "I tried basketball and I was not very successful at it so, I just tried to get better at football and it ended up working out for me."
Smith is part of a three-man class of Newberry signees from Camden. That trio will join former Bulldog Alexx Cooke, a sophomore wide receiver with the Wolves. Having friends and a former teammate on the squad will help ease the transition phase in both his football and college life.
"It helps to make me feel a little more comfortable that I know people there," Smith said of the abundance of familiar and friendly faces at Newberry. "That will help me socially."
Once on the field, the Wolves’ coaching staff said they will probably keep Smith at an inside linebackers’ spot, which is fine with him.
"They said that, more than likely, they want to keep me on the inside, which is where I’m most comfortable," Smith said of his preference to where he will play at the next level.
"Not to sound like a control freak, but I like to be in control and help get my teammates in the right position. Then, I like to attack downhill and be closer to the action."
Smith was always close to the action in two seasons as a starter for the Bulldogs. Neal said that while Smith may not raise eyebrows with his time in the 40-yard dash, he brings more to the table that just sheer speed. Neal said Smith is a heady player who understands and knows how to play the game.
"Tyrel does a great job of playing downhill and getting after and then, attacking guys," said the veteran Bulldog boss. "He fills the gaps real well … he’s very, very good at doing those kinds of things.
"He may not be the fastest guy in the world but Tyrel runs well and he is fast enough. He has a really good future ahead of him."
Describing his style of play as doing what CHS linebacker coach and Newberry College graduate Casey Faulkenberry says which Smith said is, "Just fly to the ball and hustle," Smith knows he must add weight to a tall frame which can handle the extra bulk. Both he and Neal said getting bigger and stronger will only serve to make Smith a better player in college.
"I want to reach about 210 pounds and put on more meat," Smith said of the biggest challenge he will face before and during his freshman season at Newberry.
"He’s going to have to put some weight on but his body can handle extra weight," Neal said. "I can see Tyrel putting on 20 to 30 pounds, pretty easily. He’ll become a lot more physical once he does that."
Neal added that Smith has an uncanny ability of anticipating the pass and can drop into coverage to help defend in that part of the game while also being able to snuff out a running play. His ability to do both could give the Wolves’ coaching staff options as to whether to play outside linebacker should there be more a need for his services there.
Neal, for one, thinks Smith is a better fit in the middle of the field.
"Tyrel can play on the inside or, the outside," he said. "Personally, I think he’s going to be an inside guy. I don’t know how soon he’ll contribute at Newberry but if he will hang in there, I think he will be a really good player there."
As for his decision on choosing Newberry, Smith said he was a bit nervous as signing day drew closer. In the same breath, however, he said he felt that he made the right choice for himself. And as for being on his own and being away from home, Smith said he feels his is mature enough to embark on this next phase of his life.
"Being away from home won’t be a problem. And, I think I can handle the studies," he said. "I think that I will be able to manage my time well.
"I feel I came up with the right decision. Hopefully, everything’s going to work out."