LINCOLN — The phone call came like a curveball in the recruiting process.
Bo Pelini was on the line when P.J. Smith answered, telling the Louisiana high school star that he had taken a new job, left LSU after three seasons as defensive coordinator and wanted Smith to follow.
Sounds good, Smith thought. Just one question.
“I was like, 'Where you going?' ” Smith said. “He said, 'I'm at Nebraska.' So I was like, 'Oh, OK. I don't know where that is, but … ' ”
It took a little more convincing, a snowy January visit to Lincoln and the rest of the sales pitch, but the safety from River Ridge, La., eventually agreed. He signed along with 27 others in that 2008 recruiting class with no idea what might be ahead.
But it confirmed that the urge was maybe stronger to play for Pelini than any connection to Louisiana State, even though one school was just up the road and the other had him scrambling for a map.
“It's lucky that he hadn't made his decision quite yet at the time we came here,” said Huskers defensive coordinator John Papuchis, an LSU graduate assistant in 2007 before Pelini made him one of his first NU hires. “LSU was kind of on the fence in terms of what they were going to do with him, and we were able to use that relationship that we had built to get him up here.
“And now he's been an important piece of the puzzle for us for a few years now.”
Smith will be among 29 seniors playing their last game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday — and the 50th game of his career overall. A steady contributor since his redshirt freshman season in 2009, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound safety is playing his best as a senior, particularly down the stretch as Nebraska makes its run at a Big Ten championship.
“It means a lot, because ever since I was a freshman I wanted to be the guy out there every play,” Smith said. “Things happened sometimes where I wasn't, so you learn from that. Now I just go out there and I just try to be the best I can.”
Smith helped John Curtis High to Louisiana Class 2A state championships each of his final three seasons. He was an all-state pick as a senior and ranked among the state's top 15 recruits.
Smith also knew what Pelini was getting done at LSU, both from proximity to Baton Rouge and from friends playing for the Tigers.
His high school coach, J.T. Curtis, first called Pelini after he left the Tigers and told him that Smith might be interested in following him to Lincoln.
“He said, 'Absolutely, we'll take P.J. right now,' ” Curtis remembers. “I think it all worked out just the way P.J. hoped it would. I think he's really enjoyed playing for coach Pelini and had a good career and a good experience.”
Smith was a regular on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2009, making 15 total tackles. He then started three games at safety as a sophomore before Nebraska made a change.
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Even though Smith was battling to get back that position last season, he went out of his way to help junior-college transfer Daimion Stafford, who wound up starting alongside Austin Cassidy in 2011.
“Coming in I didn't know anything about the playbook, and P.J. was one of those guys that took the extra time to help me,” Stafford said. “We were competing for the same position and he did the extra stuff with me, so that shows the unselfishness.”
Smith and Stafford have teamed up at those spots as seniors, and Smith currently ranks third on the team with 65 tackles (eight for losses), with two interceptions and five pass breakups. He's also found a way to finish with his best despite playing for three position coaches in his final three seasons — Marvin Sanders, Corey Raymond and now Terry Joseph.
“Nothing ever really deterred him,” Papuchis said. “He kept battling. There were times where he played more than others, but he knew that we were counting on him this year, and he was one of the guys in the offseason that showed a lot of leadership in terms of getting this thing kind of headed in a good direction after the bowl game.”
Smith will have up to 20 family and friends at Memorial Stadium for his final home game. His family supported his decision to leave home for NU, and Papuchis even remembers Smith and his father, Richard, doing snow angels in the Devaney Center parking lot after a Husker basketball game on his visit.
That trip and the rest of the journey have been quite the experience, but Smith would like to see it all end with the one thing that's been missing so far during the Pelini regime — a conference championship.
“That's what we're playing for,” Smith said. “We need to go ahead and get it done. It's that time. Like we were saying the other day, for the last four years we've played around and now it's time to stop playing and just get the job done.”
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