South Carolina State linebacker Aaron Smith first started making a name for himself during the 2021 win over Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl.

As a freshman, he filled in for Chad Gilchrist by recording three tackles, including a tackle for loss and an interception that led to an SC State touchdown.

Last season, Smith was second on the team in total tackles (60) and third in tackles for loss (9) while leading the team in sacks (4). With the loss of BJ Davis to the transfer portal, Smith is being asked to take on more of a leadership role this spring.

“It’s been good,” Smith said of the transition. “Realizing I’m the guy that others are looking to, I’m just accepting that role and I’m ready for the challenge.”

This spring, Smith has been working at both the Mike and Will linebacker spots. He said he likes the freedom of being able to play anywhere on the field.

“The move (to middle linebacker) is better for me,” Smith said. “I’m not boxed in to one position, I don’t have to play just one side.”

Smith said he learned a lot while playing with Davis last season. Now that he’s the focal point of the defense, he hopes to share some of that knowledge with other up-and-comers.

“(Davis) taught me not to be afraid to mess up,” Smith said. “Everyone is going to make mistakes, but he taught me to play at a high level. While playing with the second team, I was always picking his brain, trying to learn and better my technique.”

Davis led the teams in tackles and interceptions last season, but Smith said he doesn’t feel any added pressure in taking over the leadership role. “I just play ball,” Smith said.

Smith and the Bulldogs took part in a scrimmage Saturday in Orangeburg.

“I saw some good things (from the defense), but there are some things that we need to clean up,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, iron sharpens iron, we’re just trying to make everyone better.”

The Bulldogs are coming off a 3-8 season in which they finished last in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Smith said the defense has tried to learn from last year’s mistakes, while starting with a clean slate this spring.

“Effort, attitude and toughness, that’s what we’re focused on this spring,” Smith said. “We don’t want to go back to that place we were last year. We remember that 3-8, and we’re carrying it on our shoulders going into the season.”

South Carolina State will conclude its spring practice with the annual Garnet and Blue Spring Game to be held Saturday, April 15, at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium and Willie Jeffries Field.