Missouri defensive coordinator Moe Ankney was skeptical last year when coach Larry Smith told him before the first preseason practice that freshman Justin Smith would start at defensive end for the Tigers. Then, when two-a-days started, Justin, a 6'5", 256-pounder, began running over any player who got in his way. "I've never seen anything like it," says Ankney, now in his 35th season as a coach. "I've had very talented freshmen, but even the best ones took some time to climb up the depth chart. Justin came in during our first pass-rush drill, and nobody could block him. After that I knew we had a gifted player."
Nicknamed Godzilla for his ferociousness on the field, Smith became the first true freshman in 12 years to start every game for Missouri. He made 86 tackles—13 for losses—and had 3� sacks as the Tigers finished 8-4 and won their first bowl game since 1979. In this year's opener, a 31-28 victory over Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 4, Smith picked up where he left off, making nine tackles and blocking a punt, which Missouri returned for a touchdown. His combination of strength (he has lifted a school-record 460 pounds in the power clean) and speed (he runs the 40 in 4.5) enables him to make plays most collegians can't. On a fourth-and-two option play in Mizzou's game against Colorado last season, Smith forced Buffaloes quarterback Mike Moschetti to pitch to tailback Cortlen Johnson, whom Smith then chased down for a four-yard loss. On a play during the Tigers' 34-31 victory over West Virginia in the Insight.com Bowl, Smith wasn't sure if Mountaineers quarterback Marc Bulger had handed off to tailback Amos Zereoue, so he tackled them both.
"I've only known a couple of players who could come in right away and dominate the way Justin did," says Larry Smith, who includes on his short list linebacker Junior Seau and defensive end Willie McGinest, both of whom he coached at USC. "Justin's just starting to scratch the surface. Everything he does is based on natural ability. Once he learns technique, he's going to be that much better."
Reserved off the gridiron, Smith takes on a different persona when he steps between the lines. "I see football as a test of manhood, and when I'm out on the field I'll do anything to win," says Smith, who is an avid weightlifter and carries a 3.5 GPA.
Though he's already one of the best defensive linemen in the country, Smith realizes he's a long way from being a polished player. "I've been happy with what I've been able to accomplish in a short time, but I know there's a lot of room for improvement," he says, adding that he's developing several more subtle pass-rush moves to go with his bullish style. "What I did last year doesn't mean anything now. My high school coach [in Jefferson City, Mo.] once told me, 'You're only as good as you are tomorrow.' I always try and remember that."