By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Sixty years after Ken Rice arrived at Auburn as the Big Man on Campus, he shook hands with the Tigers reigning BMOC, Braden Smith.
Before Auburn's A-Day game, Smith received the Ken Rice Award as the Tigers best blocking lineman.
"It's obviously a high honor," Smith said. "Lots of good linemen on our team. To get that award is a very big honor."
The two Auburn football stars have much in common, beginning with the ability to move defensive linemen to places they'd prefer not to go. Rice, a two-time All-American in 1959-60, was named the SEC's best offensive and defensive lineman as a senior in 1960.
"It's great to be on the same slate that they've been on and continue the tradition," said Smith, who earned All-SEC and All-America honors last season.
Rice, a No. 1 draft pick in 1961, played seven seasons in the NFL. Smith delayed professional football, choosing to return to Auburn.
"There are a lot of factors that played into it," Smith said. "You're thinking about how the next year is going to be. Obviously, I felt like we had a chance to do something big. Otherwise, if you don't feel like your team is going to do as well, you probably might not come back. I feel like the team is in a good spot to really do some big things."
On track to graduate in December in exercise science, Smith will go through the 2018 NFL Draft process with his Auburn degree in hand.
"It's a big deal to have that," Smith said. "Going forward, it sets you up for the rest of your life."
After his football career, Smith plans to enroll in physical therapy school. He wants to work with athletes, but not as a coach.
"My dad coached our peewee team," Smith said, chuckling. "He had to be put on high blood pressure medicine after that, so I don't know if that would be the best route."
For now, Smith will leave the coaching to Herb Hand, Auburn's offensive line coach.
"He's always a high energy guy," Smith said. "He's always got the positive energy. He always brings a little bit more than just football into it, kind of gives the bigger picture, too.
"As a coach, he's a great guy. He works base fundamentals, but then he goes the extra step and really gets the fine-tune details to really evolve the craft of being an offensive lineman. I think he tries to introduce new ideas to give us a little bit of an edge."
'I love coaching guys like him'
After starting 27 consecutive games, including all 13 last season at right guard, Smith practiced at right tackle this spring, an indication of the confidence Hand has in the 6-foot-6, 305-pound senior's versatility.
"Braden Smith embodies everything that a coach is looking for in an offensive lineman," Hand said. "Coachable, physically and mentally tough, he's a force at the point of attack and athletic in space, tremendous in the weight room and a true leader by example on the field.
"He has the perfect mix of God-given talent with the work ethic to maximize his abilities. I love coaching guys like him."
Hand's coaching contributed to Smith's decision to remain at Auburn instead of going pro early.
"He definitely helped me develop the past year," Smith said. "I definitely noticed that. I think people noticed that, too. Great coach and part of the reason I came back."
Four years ago, Smith faced another decision about his football future. Not whether to stay or go, but where to play. He chose a school 800 miles from his hometown, Olathe, Kan.
"I only took one visit here and it kind of clicked the first time I came here, the family atmosphere," he said. "I felt really good about everything. It's a big football school. You definitely want to go to a place that has that type of atmosphere. It's basically all in for everybody, all the fans. Great coaches, great history, sets you up really well.
"I'm kind of an independent so I don't really get homesick," Smith said. "If I was going to be worried about it, I wouldn't have come 13 hours away. It hasn't bothered me. My family comes down to plenty of games. It's all worked out."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer