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2024 NFL Draft: LSU DT Maason Smith sees selection in 'late Round 1' as possibility

LSU's Maason Smith takes on a pair of blockers in a win over Texas A&M in November 2023. Smith finished the game with five tackles. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
LSU's Maason Smith takes on a pair of blockers in a win over Texas A&M in November 2023. Smith finished the game with five tackles. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

LSU defensive tackle Maason Smith grappled with his decision, nearly taking it right down to the deadline for underclassmen to apply for special eligibility in the 2024 NFL Draft. If he was going to return for one final season in Baton Rouge, everything had to be right -- unlike how much of his Tigers career had proceeded to that point.

Smith never really, truly had his year in college. And people in his orbit were suggesting what might be possible if he came back.

The 6-foot-5, 306-pounder opened eyes as a freshman in 2021, notching four sacks in nine games (four starts), and by the beginning of the 2022 season, he was viewed as a potential All-SEC candidate. But after LSU's seventh defensive play from scrimmage in that year's opener against Florida State, Smith leapt in the air to celebrate a teammate's tackle for loss -- and doubled over in pain upon landing. Smith had torn his ACL, and his season was over.

"Seven plays in, man," Smith said by phone recently. "It was my first time taking a step back from football since I was 6 years old. It created some mental conflict for me."

Smith's return to the field in 2023 was pushed back one game, thanks to a suspension, reportedly given to him by the NCAA for taking part in an autograph session before NIL rules were enacted (for his part, Smith blamed his decision on a "lack of knowledge" about the situation in comments to the media last September). Even beyond the missed game though, things remained unsettled around Smith and LSU.

First, there were the lingering effects of his injury recovery, which hindered Smith's explosiveness and lateral-cutting ability. Then, September losses to FSU and Ole Miss all but removed the Tigers from the national title race, in spite of an electric offense spearheaded by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels.

On top of that was coaching churn, which took its toll on Smith and his fellow defensive linemen. LSU cycled through a whopping six defensive line coaches over his three seasons. In 2021, Andre Carter coached the D-linemen. In 2022, it was Jamar Cain. In 2023, Cain, Gerald Chatman, Jimmy Lindsey, John Jancek and the legendary Pete Jenkins all served in that role at various points.

There was little stability. Jenkins was a savior, however, whipping a talented unit into shape by season's end. Smith played up and down the LSU line, making 12 starts; he finished with 2.5 sacks, all of which came after Jenkins was lured out of retirement, first serving as an analyst on staff before eventually reclaiming the DL room.

When the deadline to make his decision about the 2024 NFL Draft loomed, Smith faced a conundrum. The former five-star recruit knew he had the talent to play in the NFL. But did he have the résumé?

Smith said he weighed three factors in his decision on the NFL: his own readiness, who would play alongside him at LSU in 2024 and who'd be coaching him with the Tigers. He believed he could make the jump to the pros, talent-wise. Meanwhile, two of his DT running mates, Mekhi Wingo and Jordan Jefferson, were already in the draft. And LSU hired a new defensive coordinator (Blake Baker) and DL coach (Bo Davis) in the days before the deadline.

That pretty much sealed Smith's decision to come out.

"It was just a lot, man. Just a lot of inconsistencies and unknowns," Smith said. "So I thought that I need to get to this next level and next chapter into my life and [that] it would be beneficial for me to just have some stability.

"I feel like ... man, that's really all I need in my game to be the best version of me."

Smith said discipline was instilled early in his life. His mother was a family-medicine doctor who started her own practice, and his father began in the oil industry from "the very bottom" before retiring early.

"Just from a young age," Smith said, "both of my parents really taught me hard work and dedication. I'm fortunate to have them in my life the whole journey."

But even with that discipline, Smith needed to take care of himself from time to time. There were days his mother, Cara Morgan, would leave the house at 5 a.m. and return after 11 p.m. His father, Malcolm Smith, often traveled overseas for months at a time. The lesson Smith learned: If you wanted to be great at something, you had to go after it and put everything you have into it.

"They were each their own bosses, you could say," Smith said. "They had to work for everything they earned. They both grinded. I saw it. That's maybe what helped me out the most."

It came in handy when Smith suffered the ACL tear at the Caesars Superdome in that 2022 game against FSU. Seasons are supposed to last longer than seven plays.

"Mentally and confidence-wise, it was tough," he said. "I feel like that's the biggest piece when it comes to injuring yourself, managing the confidence you have in yourself and knowing you're the same person you were before you got hurt.

"But with the support staff I had around me, not just my awesome trainers and doctors at LSU, but also teammates, friends and my family -- they just helped me stay optimistic through that whole tough process. And ultimately, I made it out on the other side [and] really learned a lot about myself. Sometimes you are alone in that process. I'm lucky I was prepared mentally."

Smith also spent more time thinking about things he hadn't considered much before, such as the finer points of film study and taking care of his body. Smith had already dealt with getting back into shape through difficult means; his weight ballooned to 380 pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he dropped 52 pounds prior to his freshman year at LSU. But the ACL tear was different. It meant adding back strength and regaining his stamina after not playing football for most of a year.

That paid off in a strong rebound season in 2023, even if Smith's statistical production didn't sparkle. The positive momentum he gained reminded NFL scouts of Smith's immense talent and resulted in him being an immensely popular guest of NFL teams during the pre-draft process.

Smith said he made a whopping 13 "top 30" visits, including the Saints, Bengals, Steelers, Jets, Giants, Vikings, Bills, Panthers, Packers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Broncos and Jaguars, along with other meetings at the NFL Scouting Combine and before and after LSU's pro day, where he performed a strong on-field workout and improved on his combine times in both his short shuttle (from 4.69 seconds to 4.64) and three-cone drill (from 7.62 seconds to 7.22).

Smith said his final pre-draft workout before the draft with the Jaguars was his best.

"I just tried to capitalize on the opportunity," he said. "Leave it all out there on that practice field."

It's to the point where Smith -- who was No. 63 on the latest list of the top 150 prospects compiled by's Daniel Jeremiah -- believes he could be a top-50 pick, even a late first-rounder.

"I definitely think late Round 1 is a possibility," Smith said. "For the most part, all my 30 visits, all these coaches said that they think I [am] gonna go [in picks] 20 through 40, 25 through 45. So yeah, man, I think that's definitely a big possibility for me."

This year's defensive tackle class is not considered to be a great one or full of sure things. Smith believes his talent and drive could put him among the best in the group in time.

"Man, I know my capabilities," Smith said. "I don't think of myself as anything less than that. I think people will eventually see how dangerous I can be."

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