STARKVILLE — Preston Smith rarely does anything without a smile.
Mississippi State’s affable defensive end spent four years as one of his team’s most dominant personalities. His smile grew even bigger as a senior, when he made the transition from reliable contributor to explosive pass-rusher and earned All-Southeastern Conference accolades.
The laid-back and easy-going defensive end from Stone Mountain, Georgia, said his personality on the football field comes naturally.
“I guess that’s just me,” Smith said.
“I like to have fun. I know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to get serious, but I’m always going to have fun.”
Judging by the way his stock is rising for the upcoming NFL draft, it’s doubtful that smile is going away any time soon.
On the heels of his breakthrough final season — Smith had a team-high nine quarterback sacks, two interceptions, two blocked field goals — the 6-foot-6, 267-pounder set out on a journey that looks to have changed his professional outlook. Projected as a late-round draft pick by NFL.com at the outset of his final season in Starkville, Smith used a strong senior campaign and a smooth camp circuit to vault into consideration to be a first-round pick.
“He is a player who can possibly sneak into the back end of that first round,” said Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting.com. “He’s not as explosive as some of the guys in the top of the first round, but he looks like he a very capable, reliable guy NFL teams usually covet at that defensive end position.”
Smith had a game-high five tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in late January. At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, he ranked in the top 10 of eligible defensive linemen in six of the seven positional drills. His time of 4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash time was fifth among defensive linemen. His progress continued March 18 at MSU’s Pro Day, where he worked out for scouts at defensive end and linebacker.
“They asked me to do some linebacker stuff,” Smith said, “so I did it. I’d work out at receiver if they asked me to. Anything to get noticed.”
Getting noticed hasn’t been Smith’s problem. By Thursday, NFL.com projected him to the No. 34 overall pick in the draft, while Sports Illustrated predicted the Indianapolis Colts would use the No. 29 pick to take Smith late in the first round.
“When studying tape long enough, you see traits and potential,” NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein said. “With his long arms, plus hands and ability to play the run, Smith could be an interesting prospect inside or in a hybrid 3-4 front.”
Early on, Smith admitted he couldn’t get caught up in stock-watching and had to stay focused on his training. For a player who plugged along with eight and a half sacks in his first three seasons, Smith’s senior surge wasn’t surprising to some.
“That’s really what this program is about,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said about Smith’s growth. “It doesn’t surprise me to see Preston have success because I know how hard he’s worked for it. That’s the thing about coaching, you try to put these guys in position and give them what they need, then you watch as they put the work in and they turn into what he has become. He’s always been naturally gifted, physically imposing. Now he has put it all together, and it has been fun to watch.”
Smith has been busy to prepare for the draft, which begins Thursday. He has visited Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oakland, Indianapolis, and Minnesota with less than a week for last-second visits. His last visit was earlier this week with the Denver Broncos.
“I don’t really care (who drafts him),” Smith with a smile. “I worked out in Miami for a while and it was nice, might be a good place to play. But I’ll play anywhere. I just want my chance.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat