Spend enough time with Gophers’ defensive tackle O.J. Smith and you’ll probably find him in the kitchen with his roommate, offensive lineman Ben Davis. The duo follows one simple trick to cook the best ribs in Dinkytown.
“Get you whatever seasonings you want and just add either Coke or Dr. Pepper,” Smith said. “It makes the bone come off, so it’s more tender.”
Once the seasoning is applied, the flavor of the coke will make the ribs tender and cause them to fall off the bone. Smith didn’t learn this by watching Food Network. It’s a trick he picked up from Ben Davis and his cousin. From time-to-time, the 6-foot-2, 320-pound defensive tackle, takes these cooking tips to Instagram. Whether it’s gumbo, jambalaya or ribs, Smith, a Louisiana native, is trying his hand at a variety of different recipes.
“I can be [the team chef],” Smith joked.
He not only brings culinary talent to Dinkytown, but an impressive football background. Smith spent his first three years of college at Alabama, the top program in college football. A four-star recruit out of high school, Smith committed to Alabama over offers from Mississippi State and Memphis, among others. He was an Under Armour All-American and started the game at defensive tackle after injuries piled up.
“Crazy story…I wasn’t even on the roster,” Smith said. “I subbed in for a guy that was kind of hurt and I ended up starting the game. All of the guys who were ranked higher than me, I ended up starting over them.”
After spending three years at Alabama, Smith was lost in the shuffle of a depth chart filled with top talent. He chose to transfer in hopes of gaining more playing time at another school. Smith took a visit to Minnesota in July of 2017 to learn about head coach P.J. Fleck’s program and culture. He was set to visit Kansas State, but Fleck and the coaching staff changed his plans. Smith officially transferred to Minnesota just two days later.
“Wherever [Fleck goes], I go. When I first got here, I fell in love with this place,” Smith said. “The new complex and just the culture here. Coach Fleck made me more comfortable when I talked to him…his energy definitely makes him unique.”
Initially, P.J. Fleck liked the idea of bringing in a player who not only had talent, but past experience in a different college football culture.
“A lot of players on our team, we’re the only program they’ve seen, we’re the only culture they’ve seen or it’s the second culture they’ve seen,” Fleck said this spring. “But when you bring in people from the outside at times, I like that because there’s times they have a different perspective.”
Smith has brought this perspective to the Gophers’ locker room. Spending time around Alabama head coach Nick Saban has allowed him to experience a championship culture. Now, P.J. Fleck said Smith is learning how to lead a group of young players at Minnesota.
“I think [O.J. has] been shown that maybe he thought he had to lead, but maybe he didn’t think he had to lead this much and I think that’s been good for him. It’s because he’s watched guys really lead him and he’s like, ‘wait a minute, I’m supposed to be leading you’ and I think that only makes you better,” Fleck said.
“Competition is there to make you better and in the face of competition, you do two things. You either stare it right in the face and attack it, or you turn away from it…he’s stared it right in the face and attacked it. Not only the competition in terms of a nose guard position, but in leadership.”
Smith spent his first season practicing with the team, but was forced to sit out the 2017 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules. In just a few short months, he watched head P.J. Fleck make his energetic mark on the football program. In year two, Smith has noticed how connected the team has become.
“I feel like this team is very, very connected. We are like a family,” Smith said. “I have been with former teams and stuff, so I have seen what a championship team looks like and this definitely looks like a championship team.”
Smith’s presence inside has helped the Gophers’ interior run defense. He draws attention and double teams because of his size at two-gap nose tackle. Smith is learning how manage a leadership role as he directly works alongside a young group of defensive linemen. Smith said he spends extra time studying his opponents to learn tendencies, an example he sets for younger players.
“Most of the guys on the D-Line look up to me,” Smith said. “Also, one of my biggest strengths on the field are my hands and my play recognition. I think I do a good job of knowing what the offense is going to do before they do it.”
Smith has the luxury of speaking with one of his former teammates at Alabama, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. Payne was selected by the Washington Redskins with the No. 13 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Smith speaks with Payne every day on the phone. They have discussions about football and life as Payne adjusts to playing at the professional level.
“[Payne is] my brother. I talk to him every day,” Smith said. “We just talk about football. Basically he tells me to just stay consistent and active…stay consistent, stay out of trouble, be in the weight room.”
The end goal for the Gophers’ defensive tackle is to elevate to the NFL. He has been using Payne’s advice, along with the coaching of pass rush specialist Marcus West to become more versatile. West was hired this offseason to teach the technical aspects of pass rushing to the Gophers’ defensive linemen. Smith has noticed how much this addition has helped the entire unit.
“I’m a big run stopper, so me and Coach West are just trying to work on my pass rush a lot,” Smith said. “He’s brought a lot. He made us go from not knowing what pass rush is, to pass rush is all we’ve gotta know. He brought the standard all the way up.”
Smith isn’t the only person to notice the impact Marcus West is having on the Gophers’ pass rushing strategies. Other players have commented on West’s ability to teach the technical components of football. Head coach P.J. Fleck said it’s a theme coming up during conversations with players.
“Everyone of our pass rushers loved to have Marcus West on our staff,” Fleck said. “They’re like, ‘man, coach, I don’t know where you found him, but thank goodness you brought him here.”
In the past, O.J. Smith also learned from one of the top defensive line coaches in the country, Karl Dunbar. Dunbar has spent the past 20 years coaching defensive linemen at both the collegiate and NFL levels. He served as the Vikings’ defensive line coach for six seasons and most recently left Alabama to coach the same position for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I learned a lot of technique things from him, mental things also,” Smith said. “Just sort of keep pushing and keep your head up when you’re out there playing ball.”
Those perspectives, along with the past experience of playing for one of the top coaching minds in football, has helped Smith learn different techniques during his career. Alabama head coach Nick Saban continues to make his mark on the Gophers’ new defensive tackle from afar.
“Coach Saban is an awesome guy – a mentor,” Smith said. “I call him my dad sometimes. He’s a great guy.”
Smith will be an integral aspect of the Gophers’ defensive line for the next two seasons. He gained a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA as Minnesota continues to build interior defensive line depth. He knows his experience, growth and mindset will help elevate the play of everyone around him, something he keeps in mind when he steps on the field.
“You’re not going to work harder than me and I know I’ll out work you,” Smith said. “That’s my mentality, so I just take it to the game.”