NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Clemson is counting on linebacker Chad Smith to play a major role against top-ranked LSU on college football's biggest stage.
It wasn't always that way for the fifth-year senior. Playing time was hard to come by for him until this season. But Smith was enjoying his college experience despite the limited playing time to transfer.
"I just couldn't leave," said the 23-year-old said Smith, a strong, smart, high-profile prep linebacker who took part in prospect showcases that led to him being rated the No. 2 player in Virginia.
He received several scholarship offers from Power Five schools but ultimately decided on Clemson. But he couldn't make much of an impact outside of the scout team or special teams during his first four seasons on campus.
But instead of transferring to get more playing time or a starting spot someplace else, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Smith stuck around. It just wasn't how he was brought up in his military family.
Clemson has greatly benefited from his decision.
Smith, who hadn't made a college start before this season, will be heavily counted on tonight when No. 3 Clemson (14-0; No. 3 CFP) faces No. 1 LSU (14-0; No. 1 CFP) for the College Football Playoff championship.
In an era when the movement of college players from school to school — LSU's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow transferred from Ohio State — is as easy as clicking enter and a player is in the transfer portal.
That wasn't a route for Smith, who cherished his team, his friends, his school enough to stay.
Smith has blossomed into one of Clemson's most consistent players in the team's bid for a third national crown in four seasons. He's third on the Tigers in tackles, and tied for third in sacks and quarterback pressures.
Smith was named defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl for his career-high 12 tackles in Clemson's 29-23 CFP semifinal win Dec. 28 against Ohio State.
"It would've been so easy for him to just kind of give up and move on," said Clemson's longtime strength coach Joey Batson. "But he's just been a solid, stabilizing force on our football team."
Smith's mindset in large part comes from his upbringing. His father is a retired Air Force colonel who works at the Pentagon. Both his grandfathers served in World War II and his brother and sister are currently in the Air Force.
"I consider myself a very loyal guy," said Smith, from Sterling, Va.
And one of the most detail oriented players Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has ever had. Swinney recalled when Smith needed to go to a family wedding days before the Tigers played Florida State in 2017.
Smith and his father each told Swinney about the player's itinerary and guaranteed his return the night before the game. Swinney told Smith to relax, enjoy the wedding and that the team would be waiting for him.
"He has such a great respect for the chain of command and authority," Swinney said. "It's ingrained in him."
So is the ability to work through a lack of playing time without complaint that might lead others to social media rants or looking for a way out.
Smith sensed Clemson's potential when he arrived in 2015 and was eager to play whatever part he could.
"I'm super blessed to be part of four national championship experiences since I've been here," he said. "Where could you find that anywhere else?"
Smith earned an undergraduate and Master's degrees in communication. He took part in micro-internships (work experiences with limited hours to fit into Smith's football workload) with RaceTrac Petroleum in 2018 and with General Electric last year.
Smith would love to play professional football, but has other goals beyond that.
"I don't know exactly what those are, but I knew Clemson could help facilitate a path to finding a passion outside of football," he said.
Win or lose against LSU, Smith is grateful for the people and experiences that drove him to bigger things that looked for quite a while might never come.
"Putting so much hard work and sticking with it through the highs and lows to see it come to fruition, it's special," Smith said. "It's something I will hold on to the rest of my life."