Sometimes, a number is just a number.
Not to Will Smith Jr.
The junior Dublin Coffman defensive lineman proudly displays 91 across his chest, on his shoulders and on his back. It's a purposeful move, a number picked without coincidence. It was the number his late father, Will Smith, wore for the New Orleans Saints from 2004 to 2013 during a standout NFL career where the former defensive end finished with 67.5 sacks, 20 forced fumbles, a Super Bowl ring in 2010 and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2006.
“Man, it just shows his legacy,” Smith Jr. said of choosing to don his father’s number in high school. “I just want to carry that on. (Wearing that) just connects me to him.”
Buckeye fans need no introduction to the elder Smith, a former team captain and four-year letterwinner that finished his collegiate career with 167 total tackles, 46.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks before being selected by the Saints with the 18th pick of the first round of the NFL draft in 2004. Smith, who wore No. 93 at OSU, helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2002 and was an All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2003. Tragically, he was shot and killed in New Orleans in 2016.
Smith Jr. is the first to admit he didn’t always realize the full extent of his father’s legacy.
“When I was younger, I think I was just like used to it and I never really understood how big a deal it was until I started getting older,” Smith Jr. said. “Then I really started realizing how big of a deal it was. I just think it’s awesome to be related to him.”
The Saints haven't forgotten the elder Smith's contributions to their organization, either.
Over the last five years, Smith Jr. and his family have kept in touch with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, who coached his father for eight seasons. Payton has invited Smith Jr. and his family to various events since 2016, such as summer camps, games and even Ohio State’s pro day in 2018.
“I just remember looking at the guys running the 40-yard dashes and thinking, ‘These dudes are unbelievably fast,’” Smith Jr. said of attending the pro day with Payton in 2018.
Earlier this fall, Smith Jr. received a text from Payton. “We need to get you to a game this year,” the text read. Smith Jr. later attended the Saints’ game against the New England Patriots, the team his father played his final pro season for in 2014, on Sep. 26 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Payton checks in on his former players’ family every couple of months or so, Smith Jr. said.
“He’s unbelievable, he’s the nicest man ever and I really enjoy talking to him,” Smith Jr. said of Payton.
While he’s always going to be associated with his father’s storied career, the younger Smith Jr. is turning into a promising player in his own right.
Rotating between defensive end and defensive tackle for Dublin Coffman, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman has picked up Division I offers from Marshall and Miami (OH) thus far. His length creates a problem for interior offensive linemen and it’s plausible he could rise in recruiting rankings to become one of Ohio's top prospects in 2023.
“I would say my quickness off the ball and my pursuit to the ball,” Smith Jr. said when asked to describe his strongest on-field attribute.
Check out my midseason highlights. Games 5-7. Dline #55https://t.co/IS2xUHMWtt— Will Smith (@iwillsmithjr) October 5, 2021
Offers from Power Five schools could be coming soon, as he’s already visited Purdue, Marshall and Notre Dame this fall and plans to visit West Virginia and Miami (Ohio) later in the year.
But this weekend, he’ll be at his dad’s old stomping grounds: Ohio Stadium.
“Oh man, I’m so excited,” Smith Jr. said of his upcoming visit. “I’ve been watching them since I was little. I’ve went to the games with my dad and my mom, I’m just so excited to go as a recruit.”
Smith Jr. camped with the Buckeyes in June and has been told the Buckeyes see him as a defensive tackle rather than a defensive end. OSU’s coaching staff has told Smith Jr.’s high school coach they’d like to see him add 10 pounds before the start of his senior season before they’ll consider offering, though.
Before he was invited to Saturday’s home game against Maryland by OSU director of high school relations Ed Terwilliger, Smith Jr. said he hadn’t had much contact with the Buckeyes, but now speaks with OSU around once a week. He was almost at a loss for words when considering what receiving an offer to play for the Buckeyes would feel like.
“Oh man,” Smith Jr. said. “I feel like that would be unbelievable.”