Senior right tackle Braden Smith could have left Auburn last spring for the promise of NFL riches.
After establishing himself as one of the best run-blocking guards in college football during the last two seasons, Smith could be gearing up for a pro training camp right now rather than worrying about another Iron Bowl against Alabama.
But Smith — an Olathe South graduate who expects to finish a bachelor’s degree in education this summer — opted to return for one final run with the Tigers.
“I knew there was going to be something special going on this year,” Smith said. “We have all the pieces, and I definitely think we have a chance to compete for titles and championships.”
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He said offensive line coach Herb Hand’s role in his development as a player also was key factor.
Smith (6-6, 303), a three-time All-Metro selection by The Star, started at right guard the last two seasons for Auburn, which led the SEC with 271.3 rushing yards per game in 2016.
He’ll shift to right tackle this fall, a position he played as a freshman at Auburn.
“It’s good to be versatile at multiple positions and could help me in the future, but also our team had a need at right tackle,” Smith said.
Robert Leff was a run-blocking savant, but his graduation created a hole and Smith doesn’t mind shifting to the outside.
“Anywhere on the field is good with me,” said Smith, a two-time All-SEC selection who was added to the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy on Thursday for the second straight season.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Smith’s decision to return is part of why the program might be poised for a run at ending Alabama’s dominance in the SEC West.
“We’ve had some very talented offensive linemen during my eight years at Auburn, and he’s right in the middle of that,” said Malzahn, who lauded Smith’s versatility as the reason for the position change. “… (He’s) probably one of the more talented offensive linemen. He can play tackle. He can play guard. (He’s) one of the more talented offensive linemen I’ve had at Auburn.”
Smith, who was a notoriously shy interview during his prep days, has blossomed at Auburn.
“The first two years Braden was at Auburn, I would get short answers and sometimes maybe just a grunt,” Malzahn said. “He has really come a long way from a leadership standpoint. The fact that he’s here and wanted to come be a part and represent Auburn, I think that says a lot about him as a person.”
But not everything has changed from Smith’s days dominating the Sunflower League. He remains an avid gardener.
“If you get me started on that, I’ll go on for hours, so you don’t want to get me started on that,” Smith said with a laugh. “But that’s something I definitely like to do in my free time.”
He said he makes raised beds, planter boxes and tubs to feed his green-thumb passion at Auburn.
“It’s just something I enjoy and kind of like a safe haven to get away from football and the chaos that goes around that,” Smith said.
He hasn’t been able to shake a nickname earned during his time with the Falcons either.
Smith said the “Drago” nickname — a nod to his resemblance with the fictional Russian pugilist from the “Rocky” franchise, which gained steam at Auburn — has died down.
“The one that’s followed me throughout my whole tenure playing football, even through high school, was ‘Gigantor,’” Smith said. “That’s one that’s always followed me and never been shook off.”