HOOVER, Ala. — Braden Smith knew exactly what the reporters in front of him thought when Auburn football announced he would be attending SEC Media Days.
In his first three years at Auburn, the first-team All-SEC guard had a knack for meeting press conference questions with short answers. His appearances were often the quickest question-and-answer sessions on the Plains.
Gus Malzahn joked Smith used to communicate in “grunts” when he first came to Auburn. Smith said his head coach probably didn’t even expect him to agree to come to Hoover.
“He had me in mind, but you never know,” Smith said. “I’m not the most talkative guy. When he asked that, he was probably thinking that I wasn’t going to say yes. But I was like, ‘I definitely want to do that.’ I just wanted to say yes as quick as I can. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
So it came as no surprise that the first question Smith faced in Hoover on Thursday morning was about how few words he usually said to the media. A veteran Auburn beat writer called him the most surprising SEC Media Days pick he’d seen in his two decades of covering the team.
Smith knew what everyone thought of him being in Hoover, and he was ready to prove them wrong.
“I think some people kind of underestimate me,” Smith said. “Some people are like, ‘He ain’t going to talk at all.’ But, basically, I had no worries about this.”
An hour later, Smith was downstairs in the main ballroom at the Wynfrey Hotel, facing dozens of reporters from all over the country. His answers weren’t lengthy, but he handled the interview sessions with a comfort level reporters hadn’t seen on the Plains.
“It’s just growing with age and becoming a leader,” Smith explained. “It’s the personal growth that you go through when you’re at a school like Auburn. Especially for this year, it’s really been on me to become a leader now that I’m a senior. I’ve been starting on the offensive line for a while now, and there’s definitely a responsibility that comes along with the years I’ve played.”
Smith was more than ready to change for Auburn. It’s been the theme so far of his senior year.
A few months before he flew to Hoover with Malzahn and fellow seniors Daniel Carlson and Tray Matthews, Smith switched from his two-year spot as starting right guard to right tackle.
Smith was one of the best interior lineman in the entire country in 2016, earning All-SEC honors and a few All-American nods. So moving from guard to tackle was a bit of a curveball heading into his senior year.
“There’s always some adjustment process that goes into it,” Smith said. “But it takes more reps. Over time, you get a feel for it and keep going from there.”
While there’s a chance Smith could move back inside for 2017, the Tigers could use his talents more at tackle. He arrived at Auburn as a tackle in 2014, where he played as a reserve and as a “sixth man” in jumbo packages.
He’ll bring that well-rounded game to a right tackle position that needs his type of talent. With new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey placing more emphasis on passing, Auburn will put its best lineman up against more elite edge rushers that dominate the SEC.
“I play anywhere they need me,” Smith said.
The Tigers will also look on Smith to be a stronger leader up front in 2017. Auburn added a pair of graduate transfers in former Florida State guard Wilson Bell and former Jacksonville State center Casey Dunn this summer. Five-star tackle signee Calvin Ashley headlined a strong incoming offensive line class that will create even more depth this fall.
Smith is making it a priority to get the newcomers up to speed this summer alongside returning senior starters Darius James and Austin Golson.
“Basically sitting them down and teaching them the offense, teaching them the drills, teaching them how we do things at Auburn,” Smith said. “We kind of gave them a lowdown of how the culture is around here. Just get them up to par, take them under our wings.”
"It's definitely been a shift to being one of the SR leaders. It's a big responsibility & we can't slack off."
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) July 13, 2017
Part of that leadership role included what happened Thursday, when Smith made the media rounds.
“He has really come a long way from a leadership standpoint,” Malzahn said. “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.”
He talked Auburn’s lofty preseason goals, his Kansas roots, his love of gardening and his reputation as one of college football’s most freakish athletes. Some of the mystery surrounding Auburn’s quiet big man faded in the Wynfrey ballrooms as he explained his low-key nature in front of the media.
“I’m from Kansas, so when I first came here I didn’t really know anybody,” Smith said. “I’m kind of reserved, but teammates took me in, I got more comfortable with building that trust. I’ve always been a talkative dude, they just never realized that until they got to know me.”
He’s not in Kansas anymore, and media members got to know more of Smith on Thursday. Auburn’s opponents will do the same over the next few months.
And whether it’s on the exterior of the offensive line or in front of the cameras and microphones in Hoover, Smith is comfortable with whatever Auburn wants from him.
“Anywhere is good for me,” he said.