Talking about defensive tackle Tanzel Smart an hour after a recent Tulane practice, quarterback Tanner Lee guessed he was in the weight room trying to get fitter and stronger.
A minute later, defensive end Royce LaFrance confirmed Lee’s suspicion. LaFrance had just left the weight room to do an interview, and he said Smart was working out on the treadmill.
No surprise there. Smart’s work ethic has become legendary around the program as he has built himself into one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the American Athletic Conference.
When Tulane (3-7, 1-5) faces SMU (1-9, 0-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas, Smart, a 6-foot-1, 304-pound beast in the middle, will be looking to add to his league-high total of 48 tackles for an interior lineman.
Those numbers should not be taken lightly. Julius Warmsley, the gold standard for Tulane defensive tackles in recent years, made a career—high 46 stops in 13 games in 2013.
Only one interior lineman in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky’s Cory Johnson with 59, has made more tackles than Smart. Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 NFL draft prospect at tackle according to Phil Steele, has 34 tackles.
SMU’s Justin Lawler, with 55 tackles, is the only defensive end in the AAC with more stops than Smart.
“He’s all over the place,” LaFrance said. “He’s better conditioned than everybody on the defense. He’s hustling everywhere, so you might see him 15 yards down the field tackling a receiver.”
The only thing you don’t see him doing much is talking. Smart, a junior who attended Scotlandville High in Baton Rouge, prefers to let his performance speak for itself. He trashes opponents without engaging in any trash talk on or off the field.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “That’s all I can say. I just go out there and play.”
Teammates and coaches are much more vocal about his attributes.
“He’s fantastic,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “He does everything right. Every time you see him, he’s in the film room or the weight room. He’s a rare, rare kid. Rare.”
At times, Smart sets such an example with his diligence that the players around him have a hard time measuring up.
“He never leaves the weight room,” said senior safety and co-captain Darion Monroe. “CJ’s always telling us we need to be more like him. He’s one of the hardest-working guys, and it’s paying off for him.”
Smart made an immediate impression when he arrived in 2013, cracking the rotation for what turned out to be Tulane’s best defense this century. The Green Wave ranked 19th nationally in yards allowed per play (4.92) and fifth in average yards allowed per carry (3.19), with Smart logging time as a key reserve in 12 games and finishing with 14 tackles.
Last year, he started all 12 games and led Tulane’s linemen with 47 tackles — 12 more than his closest pursuer, end Tyler Gilbert.
This season, his play has risen another notch. He has a team-high 13 tackles for loss, another rarity for an interior lineman, and has been particularly dominant in the past four games.
He got consistent penetration against Navy’s triple option offense, forcing record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds to pitch much more often than normal. The Wave held the Midshipmen to 133 rushing yards, less than half of their total in any of their other nine games.
Then, against Memphis, Connecticut and Army, he made seven tackles for loss, blowing up plays repeatedly.
“He’s a workhorse,” Lee said. “He’s unbelievable. He doesn’t talk at all, but he’s in there and gets it done and he’s producing on the field.”
It’s hard to get Smart to open up.
“I’m a very laidback guy,” he said. “I just like chilling. I love working out, watching TV and, of course, since I’m a big guy, eating. So that’s really it.”
His unassuming presence belies his consuming passion to be the best he can be in all aspects of his college life. Smart is on course to graduate with a double major. Monroe, his roommate, said he is not sure where Smart finds the time to go to class because he is always in either the weight room or his own room.
Somehow, though, he’s getting it done everywhere.
“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” defensive line coach Kwahn Drake said. “He lives in the weight room, he’s outworking guys in the classroom and he’s outworking guys on the field. It’s kind of in his DNA. Some guys just kind of have what you call that ‘it’ factor.”
Smart has played well enough that even though he is short by NFL standards, he could start drawing attention as a draft-eligible junior. Cornerback Lorenzo Doss left last year after his third season at Tulane and was taken in the fifth round by Denver, but Smart put that possibility to rest immediately.
For starters, he wants to spend another year with his brother, offensive tackle Keeyon Smart, who is redshirting this season. He also wants to end his career on a winning team.
First, Tulane has to finish strong this season. With rumors swirling about Johnson’s future if the Wave does not beat SMU and Tulsa in its last two games — and possibly even if it does — Smart and his teammates have plenty of motivation.
If they follow his example, they’ll be at least halfway there.
“We don’t give up,” Smart said. “We’re practicing good. I will be back next year to get us to a bowl game. I feel like we’re going to have a monster season.”