D.J. Smith grew up in east Charlotte, played at Independence High and Appalachian State and signed with the Carolina Panthers in January.
But did he really play at Independence? Let’s give him the test. Yes, he did. He calls his school “the Big I” and he has this to say about Independence’s rival:
“I still hate Butler (High) to this day,” Smith, 25, says.
Compact at 6-foot and 240 pounds, Smith had a stellar college career with the Mountaineers. He started 50 of 56 games played with quarterback Armanti Edwards, a former Panthers receiver.
Green Bay took Smith during the sixth round of the 2011 draft. He started three games as a rookie at inside linebacker and all six to begin his second season.
Then, near the end of a play against Houston, he was blocked from behind. He heard the pop in his knee, went down, tried to stand and failed. He tore his MCL and his ACL . The Packers put him on injured reserve and waived him in 2012.
Smith got a look from Houston and a look from San Diego. The Panthers worked him out last season and, when they were convinced the knee had healed, offered him a job.
Must be cool, going to the team you cheered growing up.
“My mom’s a big Panther fan,” Smith says. “My dad is a Cowboys fan. I was a Steelers fan. I always liked defense.”
When the phone rang his father’s allegiance changed.
“It was a shock, I would say, to play in my hometown,” Smith says. “It was just a blessing and an opportunity to make it a great experience.”
How did family and friends react?
“Wow,” Smith says. “Definitely a lot of love.”
Al Holcomb, who coaches the Carolina linebackers, offers some.
D.J. “has done a really good job of blending in,” Holcomb says. “He’s smart, he’s savvy, he does provide some leadership because he’s been in the league. His preparation has been good, his attention has been good, his effort has been very good.”
Now Smith has to prove it.
“That’s exactly right,” Holcomb says. “Seeing how productive he can be and how he shows up and all the things we’re trying to do as a Carolina defense.”
Smith says that, like every other player, he’d like to start. But he watches linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and “when you’ve got guys like that you just root for them and cheer them on and learn from them.”
Smith says Davis has taught him “attitude and leadership and how to do it the right way. And little things off the field like how you study and how you eat.”
Davis says Kuechly is “a stud. Run, hit, jump, anything you tell him to do he can do it.”
I ask Smith what his style is.
“I have all types of styles,” he says. “I can get downhill, I can run with you down the field, I can call blitzes, I can do it all.”
And Smith can run with the ball. Every linebacker I’ve ever asked tells me how he once was an exceptional running back. Jon Beason, whose former number (52) now is worn by Smith, expounded. Thomas Davis has. Smith says he was a stud running back at Piedmont Middle School.
I don’t ask Kuechly because he’ll credit the coaching, play-calling and offensive line.
Smith talks to former teammates from Independence and Appalachian State, legendary programs you best appreciate if you lived in Charlotte and North Carolina.
At Independence, Smith played on four state championship teams, lettered four seasons, started three and was named the team’s 2006 most valuable player. He was twice all-state and three times all-conference.
“I sit here and think about Independence and how we had some big-time games and the big deal was Memorial Stadium,” Smith says, smiling at the memories. “That was where you showed up and showed out.”
And here you are at Wofford, formerly one of Appalachian State’s biggest Southern Conference rivals.
That’s like holding training camp at Butler.
“I hate Wofford,” Smith says. “I hate Furman.”
“No,” Smith says. “I really hate Georgia Southern.”