Chad Smith was a four-star prospect (247) from Sterling, VA who chose Clemson over offers from Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Maryland, and Wisconsin among others. He was recruited by Brent Venables and joined a class (2015) that included linebackers JD Davis and Judah Davis (gray-shirted players from 2014) as the only other linebackers.
Chad Smith redshirted in 2015 and then became a major contributor on special teams, splitting the Special Teams Player of the Year award with Tanner Muse, in 2016.
After receiving just 20 snaps as a redshirt freshman, Chad Smith played 133 snaps while continuing to be a major special teams contributor as a redshirt sophomore. Still, he remained third on the depth chart at middle linebacker behind Tre Lamar and James Skalski, both of whom would return the next season. He earned his degree two years early, so he could have grad transferred and found somewhere he could start. Instead, the thought never crossed his mind:
“The thought of transferring never really hit my mind. I mean, I love it here. Coach Swinney is a helluva leader and a great guy, and just being able to be around these players, my teammates, is special.” - Chad Smith after 2019 Fiesta Bowl
In 2018, as a redshirt junior, Chad Smith didn’t see an increase in snaps, playing 127 snaps over 15 games. Even with Skalski redshirting, Chad Smith remained third on the depth chart behind Tre Lamar and now Judah Davis. The Tigers went 15-0 and blew out Alabama. Chad Smith finished the year with 35 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, and one fumble recovery.
Although Judah and JD Davis had graduated, starting middle linebacker Tre Lamar was expected back for his senior year. Additionally, James Sklaski would be back from his redshirt season and presumably leapfrog Chad Smith at middle linebacker. Over at weakside linebacker, former five-star Shaq Smith seemed poised to finally reach his potential. The fifth-year Chad Smith appeared destined to be a depth piece yet again, failing to ever live up to the four-star expectations.
Then Tre Lamar declared for the NFL draft. He would sign as an undrafted free agent with the Lions. Chad Smith’s roommate, James Skaski, would in fact take the starting position at middle linebacker, but another domino fell. Shaq Smith, the presumptive starter at weakside linebacker, shocked everyone, including Coach Swinney, by transferring to Maryland. There he’d be coached by someone that was a father figure to him growing up - Cory Robinson (who just left to join the Saints). That opened up the weakside linebacker spot for Chad Smith, who would shift over and earn the starting position.
As a full-time starter (14 starts), Chad Smith played 583 snaps. He tallied 80 tackles, 5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. He also earned All-ACC Academic team honors. His play on the field assuaged very real concerns that unexpectedly losing Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith over the offseason would spell trouble for Clemson’s linebacking corps.
His season started off with a bang and he posted 7 tackles, 1 TFL, and a forced fumble in the season opener against GT. Against Syracuse, he posted 9 tackles including a sack. In a close call at UNC, he recorded five tackles and was in on the stop of UNC’s potential go-ahead two-point conversion. He had nine tackles and a strip sack against BC to earn Defensive Player of the Game honors. All that was to be surpassed by the best performance of his career, which came in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
The Tigers were caught off-guard by Ohio State’s pass-happy, uptempo approach and elite cornerback play. Clemson fell down 16-0, but it could have been much worse if not for several exceptional defensive plays that held Buckeyes drives to field goals. As the Tigers roared back at the end of the first half, the defense held firm and continued to excel throughout the second half as Clemson completed a triumphant comeback. Chad Smith was a big reason why. Take a look:
Smith posted 12 tackles (0.5 for loss) en route to earning the Defensive MVP award. Here’s what Coach Swinney had to say about his performance:
“How about Chad Smith? Fifth-year senior. Never started a game ever at Clemson before this year. He got two degrees. He waited a couple of years. He could have left two years ago he graduated so early, but he stayed at Clemson, he stayed the course, he hung in there, kept believing in himself, kept working, and here he is getting MVP on a stage like this tonight. 12 tackles.” - Coach Swinney
Chad Smith arrived in '15 as a highly-touted recruit. He redshirted, played on special teams 3 years and then finally earned a starting LB spot his senior season.— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 31, 2019
And now he's the Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP.
Proud of you, Chad!
His story: https://t.co/nUTRFGQcL8#PAWjourney pic.twitter.com/vK7NIoZmwA
Chad Smith played sparingly in the National Championship Game due to the unique matchups LSU presented, but he’ll be remembered very positively in the minds of Clemson fans for his sticktoitiveness and major contributions across his senior year, most especially in his final start. As we say farewell to Chad Smith, we’ll end with words from Coach Swinney:
“He’s the epitome of what our program is all about.”