IN FOCUS: LSU Defensive Linemen Mekhi Wingo and Maason Smith
Mekhi Wingo and Maason Smith form one of the most disruptive defensive tackles duos in the nation.
There’s a chair stuck in the ceiling tiles of a locker room inside Caesar’s Superdome.
It was the nose tackle’s rage and heartbreak versus the chair.
The chair lost.
The player who felt on top of the world just hours prior felt his world come crashing down when he heard six words:
“We think you tore your ACL.”
Despite being a Houma, La. native, Maason Smith did not grow up as a diehard LSU fan. He didn’t commit to the school in advance, only revealing his decision when he signed his national letter of intent on signing day.
“I just knew I was supposed to be home,” Smith said. “It always felt like I was home when I was here.”
Heading into his sophomore season in 2022, Smith had high expectations, no different from every other year of his football life. He was the top-ranked player in Louisiana coming out of high school and showed tremendous potential as a freshman at LSU. Everything he ever wanted was falling into place. He was ready to make some noise in the first game against Florida State, but the very first drive was devastating instead.
“I’ve jumped up in that same position hundreds of times,” Smith recalled. “I never really thought anything else of it.”
This time, he had to. After feeling his knee buckle when celebrating a defensive stop, Smith knew something was wrong. Then came those six words from Micki Collins, director of athletic training.
“I felt like everything was crashing in on me,” Smith said. “I just wanted to go home. I didn’t really have any words. I woke up that morning feeling on top of the world, and by the time I went to sleep, I was down and out.”
With a torn ACL and meniscus, Smith watched the 2022 season unfold from the sidelines. Immediately after surgery, the nerve blockers he was given didn’t work, so he felt insurmountable pain. For four days straight, Smith didn’t get out of bed. Going from so high to so low, he describes those 96 hours as the worst of his life. Wrestling with the physical pain from his injury, the emotional pain of watching instead of playing and still trying to be there for his team, drove Smith to isolate.
“I was upset with the circumstances that I was put in,” Smith explained. “I never really do anything to anybody. I never really step on anybody’s toes, so it was just hard for me to really believe that something like that happened to me. I had never really been through anything like that before.”
Through the rigorous days of rehab, Smith’s support system kept him going and pulled him out of isolation. His guys — Major Burns, Harold Perkins Jr., Jaquelin Roy, Garrett Nussmeier and Quad Wilson, to name a few — took care of him when he couldn’t do it himself. Nussmeier even took care of Smith’s dog for him.
“I love those guys like they’re my own” Smith said. “They’re blood brothers. I didn’t really have anybody at that time.”
Except for the woman he has always had: his mom. And, another woman that became a second mom: Micki Collins. She was the one pushing him every day, never letting him think about giving up.
She swapped the six devastating words for three simple ones that made all the difference: “We got this.”
“I love Miss Micki,” Smith said. “I text her ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’ I tell her I love her like she’s my family member. The things we went through together, I don’t know if I could’ve made it with anybody else.
It’s easy to assume the entire injury process was the worst time of his life, but Smith now calls it the best. He found who he was outside of football, which is something every athlete has to do one day. At only 20 years old, Smith has a head start on what some athletes struggle to do long after they finish playing. Throughout his injury process, Smith developed a stronger relationship with Dr. D.F. Arnold, LSU’s assistant athletic director of football player development. Pre-injury, Smith admits to taking football for granted. When he lost it, he lost himself.
“I was so hurt from football,” Smith recalled. “I was distraught. I was destroyed. But, Dr. Arnold would tell me, ‘Football ain’t even you.’ I always needed to find who I was outside of football.”
Along with a perspective change on who he is came a new appreciation for the game and respect for his teammates. No one will ever hear him complaining again because he knows how it is to have nothing, and the way he saw other guys step up in his absence proved to be powerful.
Arguably, no other player stepped up more last season after Smith’s injury than defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo.
Case in point: Wingo was recently named the recipient of the No. 18 jersey, given to the player that most embodies the qualities of an LSU football player – a selfless leader, a glowing representative of the program on and off the field and someone who possesses great focus and attention in both the biggest moments and in the small details.
With the loss of Smith last season, LSU’s defensive line needed every single one of those things from somebody. Wingo made an immediate impact as a starter, and he went on to earn 2022 All-America and All-SEC recognition.
“I respect him so much,” Smith said of Wingo, a junior from St. Louis, Mo. “I just imagine my freshman year, somebody getting hurt the first drive of the first game, and I’ve got to step in and do just as well. Not having as many reps, it’s just a hard position to be put into. I feel like he handled it better than anybody else could have. We are really close and we’ve gotten a lot closer, just because I can help him out, he can help me out.
“My game brings out the best of his game, and his game brings out the best of my game. I just can’t wait to be on the field with him. Great dude, great leader. That’s my guy, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season.”
LSU’s defense has long been the source of the program’s strong foundation. With Smith and Wingo at the helm, regression seems impossible. The work ethic and leadership of the two are infectious, and Wingo, who transferred to LSU after his freshman year at Missouri, now has the No. 18 brotherhood to make proud. To no surprise, he’s taking the same approach that Smith has always taken.
“Since I transferred here, I didn’t want to come in and step on anyone’s toes, be this loud leader when Coach is around,” Wingo explained. “I just wanted to come in here, put my head down, go to work and really gain the trust of the team and the coaching staff. I’m going to go out there, play my heart out and make sure I represent this number the right way.”
“The number 18 has great historical significance with our program,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said of Wingo, who has served as a member of the SEC Football Leadership Council and was one of 11 LSU players who traveled to Africa as part of the program’s first Study Abroad initiative.
“It’s worn by a player who represents the traits and spirit associated with a successful program, and that’s Mekhi.”
Narratives surrounding the 2023 season will suggest Smith is on a redemption tour and Wingo wants to prove he is worthy of wearing No. 18. For the men inside the walls of LSU’s locker room, these two never have to be anything besides themselves. Those people are more than enough, and they know it.
“Ball is ball. You can’t really ever complicate it,” Smith explained. “I just love to compete. That’s how I am now to this day. I love to make crowds go wild.”
There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is that Death Valley goes wild on a Saturday night. If history is any predictor of what’s to come, the defensive line, anchored by Smith and Wingo, will be largely responsible. There might be some chairs stuck in ceiling tiles, but only as a pure expression of victory.