Editor's Note: This first appeared in the Daily Chronicle's first NIU sports newsletter, going out Thursday, Feb. 8. This is a free preview of what appeared in the newsletter.
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Welcome to the Daily Chronicle's first NIU Sports newsletter. Each week, Josh Tolentino (@JCTSports on Twitter) will provide exclusive content from what he's been reporting, seeing and hearing on the NIU athletics beat.
This week, we've got a Q&A with 2017 Consensus All-American Sutton Smith on expectations for next season, and hanging out with Baker Mayfield.
JT: You had a chance to hang out with Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and other All-Americans at the Walter Camp All-American Experience a few weeks ago in New Haven, Connecticut. What was that like?
SS: “It was fun. He’s a great guy. He and a lot of other guys I met, offered different perspectives on football and it was very educational. Everyone is equal in my mind, if I’m talking to them, no matter if it’s a famous person or a 5-year-old kid. Part of me really liked talking to the older guys too – there were past NFL players who gave me a lot of wisdom for my future. I really respect all the people that were there.”
JT: What was your favorite moment from the Walter Camp Experience?
SS: “There’s nothing better than the feeling than actually seeing someone’s face when you’re giving back. I’m not superior to anything. My favorite moment was visiting the hospitals and hanging out with the kids. It’s very heartwarming and gave me a different perspective on life. These kids that don’t ever get to experience football or don’t have that competitiveness or camaraderie playing on a football team. I wish they could. I enjoy meeting those kids a lot. We went to a kids day camp where they got to play and hang out with us. Do some drills and try to tackle us.
But being able to hang out with them, we signed footballs and threw it back and forth. When we’re with them, that can change someone’s life and give them more power to have a better attitude when they face challenges. They’ve got big obstacles to overcome we just help them stay positive. Visiting the hospitals was by far my favorite thing. Football is not even close to matching what those kids are going through. It shows us how big life is. Football isn’t everything.”
JT: Besides the Walter Camp Experience, how was the rest of your break? It’s been a while since we last spoke at the bowl game.
SS: “It was good. Really relaxing even though I worked out a lot. I hung out with my family and girlfriend. It was nice.”
JT: Who were you rooting for in the Super Bowl?
SS: “I was rooting for Tom Brady, I’m a Cowboys fan so I don’t like the Eagles. I love what happened, though, that was a great win by the Eagles. I just wanted a good game. But all the things Brady has been through, I wanted to see his legacy grow.
JT: Brady did throw for 500-plus yards…
SS: “Exactly! You can’t ask forth much more from a quarterback. That’s just unbelievable. I was rooting for Tom Brady. He’s 40 years old, man. He’s literally a living legend that still plays the game. He put on a show. I watched the game with Ben Leroy, Corey Lersch, a bunch of the guys on football team. It was a fun time and a great game.”
JT: So how long did it take before after the bowl game until you were back in the weight room?
SS: “I was in the gym the very next day after the bowl game. I actually stayed the night in Detroit with my family. Then we got home around St. Louis around 3 p.m. the following day. My older brother, Sean, 26, is a giant meathead. He gets me motivated all the time. So we got back home and we went to the gym. Got a good ol’ leg day in. We hit heavy weight on the squat rack. He does weight lifting for a living so he’s always pushing me. I remember we hit isolated leg curls and did some explosive work with box jumps.
"Weight lifting is just a hobby of mine. You’ll see me in the gym everyday. If you ask anyone on the team who the biggest meathead is, they’ll probably say it’s me. I can’t stay out of there.”
JT: You’re coming off really the best year you could ever have, How do you keep that bar high? What are some early expectations heading into next season?
SS: “Just try to keep the film work going and being able to gain weight and keep a lot of my speed, which I think I’m on the right track of doing. All my maxes have gone up and I’m still pretty fast. It’s been a pretty successful offseason so far. Those are the first couple steps in being a better player for next season.
"There’s no doubt we’re going to have a great defense next year with all the key players we get back. It’s eating me alive, I want to get back and start hitting some other guys and I haven’t even started hitting my own guys! There’s a lot of competitive nature in our locker room. There will be spots on the depth chart that are won and lost. But that’s the name of the game. We’ve all got to stay hungry and want it more than anyone.
"I’m ready to hit something. I want to get out there and get going. Everybody needs a break from the game, but for me, I haven’t had a break. I don’t want one yet. If you take a break you get out of rhythm. I’m not about breaks.”
JT: Coach [Kevin] Kane and coach [Brett] Diersen, those were two guys who had a big influence on you. What was your reaction like when you found out they were leaving and how do you sustain that success moving forward under coach [Jeff] Knowles?
SS: “Coach Kane and Diersen were big influences on me. At the end of the days, it’s not about me. It’s always about the team. But when it comes to your own family like your blood family, you’ve got to do whats best for them. Everyone on the team understood their decision and understood it was the best for them. I completely support their decision. They’ve got to support their families and they’ve got to feed them before they feed us. They’re going to be great.
"I believe in coach Knowles. He’s a really good coach. You saw the linebackers were ecstatic and insanely good last year. That was even after we lost a starter (Kyle Pugh) early in the season. We have all the confidence in him in the world. We already know there are going to some changes but it’ll be nothing we won’t agree with. We trust him and will agree with anything he wants. We’re ready to prove we’re still one of the best defenses in the country.”