MOBILE, Ala. — Tanzel Smart realized very early he wouldn’t play at LSU or any other major college program.
His mother, Kawanna Ventress, could never understand why. Her son, who ultimately went to Tulane, filled her in.
“He said one time, ‘They’re not going to look at you if you’re not 6-5,’ ” Ventress said. “I tried to use encouraging methods. I tried to talk to him: ‘You’re good. You’re the best.’ ”
He’s showing now that he’s at least one of the best.
Smart, under 6-foot-1, started for the South team at defensive tackle during Saturday’s Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. In fact, the Baton Rouge native and Scotlandville graduate helped hold the North team to a field goal early in the game, combining with ex-LSU linebacker Duke Riley on a tackle during a second-and-goal.
South coaches from the Cleveland Browns inserted Smart in the most pressurized and critical of situations, too. He was on the field during the North’s last-minute drive and its failed potential game-winning 2-point try with 1:51 left.
“I did real good, sharing time with other guys and having fun,” Smart said afterward. “We were having real good fun out there.”
What made it more fun: Smart and his South team won, beating the North 16-15 by stopping them on that 2-point try — an intercepted pass in the back of the end zone.
More important for Smart was this opportunity — this week at practice in front of NFL scouts and coaches and Saturday’s game televised on NFL Network.
He knows all about his height, too. Smart measured at 6-0½ at the Senior Bowl scouting weigh-in on Monday. He weighed 296.
He was the shortest defensive lineman at this event and the lightest defensive tackle.
“My answer to that 'I’m undersized' is, just go out there and watch me practice and produce like God has been letting me do,” Smart said earlier this week. “At the end of the day, just watch.”
Senior Bowl officials invited Smart to the nation’s most high-profile college all-star game because they watched him race around in Tulane gear for four years, harassing quarterbacks and toppling running backs.
Smart started every game of his final three seasons with the Green Wave — an impressive 36 consecutive games. He finished with 40½ tackles for loss, with 18½ of them — and five sacks — coming during a season year that’s lifted him into this spot.
Smart is projected as a third- to fifth-round draft pick. He is the No. 15 defensive tackle in the 2017 draft class, according to WalterFootball.com and CBSSports.com. He flashed his interior pass-rushing skills Saturday and the run-stuffing that made him a two-time All-American Athletic Conference pick.
These are all attributes he possessed at Scotlandville, but his size kept away major programs. His best offer, he admits, came from the Green Wave. His other finalist was Texas-San Antonio.
He visited LSU camps, even attending junior day on the Baton Rouge campus, just a few miles from his home. He always left without a scholarship offer.
“It came a point in time where I knew, ‘Man, I’m not getting offered by them bigger schools,’ ” Smart said. “I took what I had and made the best of it.”
Ventress added: “I know he probably wanted to go to LSU, but I’m glad he went to Tulane, really. I felt like you don’t get that kind of offer from anywhere. After football, he’s got a career now.”
The South team beat the North, 16-15, in the Senior Bowl on Saturday, but you're probably wo…
Smart graduated in December in applied computing, finishing with a 2.6 GPA at one of the most attractive academic institutions around. In fact, Smart calls his juggling football and his studies the “biggest adversity” he’s gone through.
“Every time he called me, he was working out or studying for a class or writing a paper,” Ventress said.
It’s not like hard work has ever stopped Smart. He spent summers working with his grandfather, Eddie Ventress. He owns a landscaping company in Baton Rouge, and Smart remembers the days of helping grandpa work at homes off Highland Road.
After Hurricane Katrina rolled in, 11-year-old Smart picked up debris and helped chop downed trees. Things weren’t always perfect. He once nearly drove a lawn mower into a pond, and his grandpa would often find Smart taking an afternoon siesta in an unusual place.
“My dad would find him sleeping in a wheelbarrow,” Kawanna Ventress laughed.
Who doesn’t need a rest during a hard day’s work?
Saturday wasn’t easy either. Smart found himself most of the time against Indiana lineman Dan Feeney, projected as the third-best guard in the draft and a guy who could go in the second round. At 6-4, Feeney is nearly 4 inches taller than Smart, and he’s about 10-15 pounds heavier, too.
Size doesn’t matter, Smart says. Just watch him.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “When I’m out there, it doesn’t feel like they’re 6-4, 320. I just take a head of steam, keep my head down and keep trucking. I love playing against the first-round, second-round talent.”