Five years ago, Sutton Smith was a rising star in the 2015 recruiting class. The linebacker and running back from Saint Charles, Mo., attended Alabama's Junior Day and was invited to Nick Saban's office for a one-on-one meeting.
“I thought I was going to be going somewhere in the SEC possibly after that," Smith told 247Sports in July.
The Alabama offer never came, nor did any SEC offer. Smith fell back on his one FBS offer, committing to Northern Illinois just before breaking his hand that summer, the summer before his senior year at Francis Howell High School. If he didn't have the Northern Illinois offer, he wasn't going to college. He would've enlisted in the military.
"I would probably be in the military if not for NIU because I couldn't afford college," Smith told the Daily Herald last December. "I would definitely love to serve my country, but I'm so blessed that NIU offered me a chance."
At NIU, Smith played running back. For one practice.
"A safety, good friend of mine, picked [up a fumble]. I cleaned his clock. I felt bad afterward," Smith said. "Next day I came in and Coach Carey said, 'You're a linebacker.' "
He redshirted in 2015, added some weight, switched to defensive end and made 15 tackles in 12 games as in 2016. A year later, he was an All-American who led the nation in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (29.5) and quarterback pressures (73).
Smith added more weight — 20 pounds of muscle — and was "ready to clean someone's clock" again in 2018, though, unlike last year, he was on everyone's radar.
“Sutton may be an even better player next year without even getting close to the numbers he put up last year because those are historic numbers,” head coach Rod Carey said. “Offenses have him circled. … He’s accepted that role.”
Carey was half right; Smith was even better, though he topped some of last year's numbers and got close to others. Entering Tuesday's Boca Raton Bowl vs. UAB, he has 15 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss and 63 quarterback pressures.
If not for Carey's offer six years ago, Sutton Smith might've been cleaning clocks for the United States military, not Northern Illinois.