AUBURN, Ala. — Center Reese Dismukes started the trend by calling him “Drago,” after the Russian villain from “Rocky IV.”
Right tackle Patrick Miller went with “Paul Bunyan.” Backup guard Jordan Diamond picked “The Terminator.” Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a father of two superhero-loving sons, dubbed him “The Hulk.”
But true freshman offensive lineman Braden Smith has earned more than a handful of intimidating nicknames this month — he has a coveted spot on the Tigers' two-deep depth chart.
“He's not starting right now, but he's going to be in our two-deep,” Lashlee said Sunday in his most recent interview with reporters. “There’s no secret there, and I think he's probably (a starter) on some teams. ... Braden is someone who is physically ready and can potentially help us this year.”
In the span of a few weeks, Smith has gone from highly rated newcomer to one of fall camp’s most popular topics of discussion.
Standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing in just shy of 300 pounds, Smith made an impression on his new teammates before he even stepped on the practice field.
“That's a huge dude,” senior defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “When I first saw him on his recruiting visit, I thought he was someone's dad.”Smith gained recognition at Olathe South (Kan.) High School for his feats of strength, from bench-pressing 525 pounds three times to becoming the Kansas state champion in both shot put and discus.
“Obviously he's one of the strongest guys on the team, if not the strongest guy on the team,” Diamond said. “He's going to be a monster in the near future.”
But the hype surrounding the 18-year-old goes beyond his remarkable strength. Through his first few weeks of practice at Auburn, Smith has showcased a skill set that puts him at an elite level in the eyes of veteran offensive line coach J.B. Grimes.
“He’s in the 99th percentile, maybe the 99-point-ninth percentile of guys who are strong enough, at the right size now, have the ability to bend — all of those things,” Grimes said. “There might not be but 10 freshmen in the country who have what he has.”
Those abilities made Smith one of the nation’s highest-rated offensive linemen. He garnered all-state recognition as a junior before becoming a member of USA Today’s All-USA first team and a 2014 Under Armour All-American Game selection.
Although he was highly sought-after on the recruiting trail, Auburn was still able to come in late on the Kansas native and secure his pledge on national signing day in February.
"I can't believe we got him," Grimes said. "I can't believe we got him. I mean, that guy can play — now.”
Six months later, Smith has performed well enough in practice to become an important member of one of the nation’s most experienced units.
Although Smith was a guard in high school, he worked exclusively at left tackle during Auburn's preseason camp. He will most likely serve as the backup to third-year sophomore Shon Coleman when the Tigers set their depth chart for the season opener against Arkansas.
“He's ultra-talented,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He's everything that we thought when we recruited him. It's just a matter of learning the offense and the little details, but when you say, ‘Block the guy in front of you,’ he's going to block the guy in front of him.”
So the nicknames are nice, sure. Still, all of the monikers reference fictional characters.
Those affiliated with the program would be content if his on-field feats mirrored someone grounded in reality — the No. 2 overall pick in May's NFL draft.
“He's still learning, but he's a very smart young man,” Malzahn said. “I know (there are) comparisons now, but when Greg Robinson was a freshman, there's a lot of similarities.”