Brooks: No Time (Or Plays) Off For Smith This Season
BOULDER - All-America candidate Jimmy Smith's is approaching his final season of college football with what amounts to a five-word pledge: All out, all the time.
"Some stand out more than others, but there's a handful of times (in seasons past) when I took plays off that I should have been more ready," the Colorado cornerback conceded the other day. "I attribute that to (a lack of) focus and intensity . . . I plan on being intense in practice every single play, then doing the same thing in the games."
If he holds fast to his vow, the rangy (6-2, 205) and athletic Smith can be as good a corner as there is on any campus this season. And although it isn't fueling him as much as contributing to a breakthrough season for the Buffs, he can also improve his future earnings potential. Yes, the NFL is watching.
(An aside: Based on the number of agents he says have telephoned him over the past two months - the deluge of calls recently prompted him to change his cell number - Smith's "draftability" already is up there.)
Smith and fellow senior corner Jalil Brown are the headliners in a CU secondary that enters 2010 expecting good, if not great, things of itself and the entire defense. Honed over the past four years by position coach Greg Brown (now at Arizona), Smith and Jalil Brown will make the transition from defensive technical intern to assistant coach a bit smoother for Ashley Ambrose.
"You can't take away the ability they have," Ambrose said of the "JJ" duo. "Now, the one thing that I want them both to do is be better technicians, be comfortable with what we're doing and understand what offenses are going to try and do against them."
Smith, of Colton, Calif., once looked at basketball as his first sport. Raised by his mom and stepdad, he moved in with his older brother Ryan (he's 14 years older) before starting the eighth grade and swapped basketball for football. It was a natural move: Ryan still is a football/track coach in Colton.
Smith became very good at his new sport - good enough for scholarship offers to begin streaming in after Scout.com ranked him as the nation's No. 53 high school safety in 2005. But when he arrived at CU, his skill set outweighed his mindset.
"I've grown a lot - and anybody on the team would tell you the same," he said. "When I first got up here I was just basically ignorant to a lot of things. Being here for five years has opened my eyes to a lot of things. I've gotten more mature in learning how to do things right. I'm not saying I'm perfect now, I'm still growing. But I've definitely grown up a lot in being here."
Then there's the leadership role that, willing or not, he finds himself thrust into this season. He's never been a take-charge type, preferring to kick back, follow at times and let his natural abilities kick in when he's on the field.
Now, though, the maturity and growth he talks about have kicked in, making him realize what's expected of an older player.
"Yeah, I have no choice really (in being a team leader)," he said. "I'm a fifth-year senior. I'm not a leader by choice, but you kind of have to be in your fifth year."
Asked why that role never has come easy for him, he responded, "I've never been a leader before . . . I just always followed, did my part. This year, more eyes are on me; it's a little more difficult but I'm willing to step up and take that challenge. It hasn't been that difficult . . . it's just something I'm not used to."
A couple of years ago in August, Smith outlined among his personal goals the desire to become an all-conference corner. He recently was selected to the Thorpe Award preseason watch list, but when media covering the Big 12 Conference selected their preseason all-league defense Smith was not included.
He didn't perceive it as a slight, merely "the preseason thoughts of some guys sitting in the booth . . . it doesn't mean anything. It's what happens at the end of the season that really matters. I give no thought at all to that."
But, yeah, he has given some thought to what happens to him next season - and not because of those relentless calls from agents.
"I have to think about (the NFL) at this point," he said. "I mean it definitely alters the way I do things; I have to stay on the straight and narrow path. The more I think about it, I think the more I grow up here at school. I know they're not taking any crap up there (NFL) and I have to make sure I'm good down here before they even take me. Besides the football, that's all a part of making it in the NFL."
Ambrose, a second-round draft pick who played 13 seasons in the NFL, believes Smith and Brown can earn a living there, too.
"They already have the ability," he said. "I see some of the guys who were drafted this year (in the secondary). I show (Smith and Brown) what those guys ran, how big they are, what they lifted - Jimmy and Jalil have that already. They have all that stuff. The thing I want them to do is become mentally and physically focused, get them tougher. That's what it's all about."
But Ambrose is pushing his entire secondary to accomplish those things this season.
"I want our guys to come through training camp with the knowledge that they know what they're doing," he said. "They'll get plenty of 'reps' so they should be comfortable with it - and knowing the defense in and out.
"I'll be happy if I can see improvement in causing turnovers and finding ways to get our offense back on the field. I also want us to be better tacklers."
Had Greg Brown not left last winter, Ambrose was ticketed to coach the receivers this season. Obviously, with his defensive background, he's on the side of the ball he prefers.
"I'm really comfortable . . . I probably would have been a little more nervous being on the receivers side because the guys would have looked at me a little different," he said. "The older guys were saying I could have helped them a lot with coverages, techniques and different things, but the younger ones would have been saying, 'this guy never coached receivers . . . what does he know?'
"But it's good for me. I learned a lot from coach Hawk and from coach (Eric) Kiesau - just being on that side of the ball. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do that."
Ambrose's probable starting safeties are Anthony Perkins and Ray Polk, with Parker Orms in the No. 1 nickel back role. Ambrose calls his depth "decent . . . I mean it would be hard to replace guys like Jimmy and Jalil; I think they could be the best tandem in the Big 12.
"It's hard to say our backups could be that good. We have guys who have the ability, but they're young. And at safety it's the same way with (Perkins) and (Polk). Behind them, there's nobody who's really played at the position - they may have played on special teams.
"But when we go through this camp, all those backups are going to get a lot of 'reps.' They're going to know what we're doing. All it takes is one play for any of those guys to go down, anyone of them."
Orms was particularly impressive last spring, leading the secondary in almost every defensive statistic. Ambrose compared the redshirt freshman to graduated Cha'pelle Brown, CU's 2009 defensive MVP.
"Parker has that same ability and he's only a freshman," Ambrose said. "Throughout the spring he made plays and reminded you of Cha'pelle. It's hard to find a guy who'll come in and do the things he did - he led the team in interceptions, forced fumbles, everything. I think when the lights are on, he's going to show up."
But Orms is about to begin his first college season. For Smith, Brown & Co., it's the beginning of the end. As do his fellow seniors, Smith sees great possibilities in their final year.
"I mean, if there's any time it's going to be this time," he said. "We have all the pieces in place. We have better leadership than we've had in the previous years . . . more offensive weapons and defensively we look solid, I think.
"We have leadership in the places where it's needed. Special teams will be key for us, but I think with the leadership we have it'll be good this year."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Ashley Ambrose, first year as position coach, third year on staff.
Returning starters: CB Jalil Brown, Sr.; CB Jimmy Smith, Sr.; S Anthony Perkins, Sr.; S Ray Polk, Soph.
Returnees: S Arthur Jaffe, Jr.; S Cameron Ham, Sr.; S Vince Ewing, Soph.; S Travis Sandersfeld, Jr.; CB Jonathan Hawkins, Jr.; CB Matt Meyer, Jr.
Newcomers: CB Deji Olatoye, Fr.-RS; CB Josh Moten, Fr.; CB Paul Vigo, Fr.-RS; S Parker Orms, Fr.-RS.; S Terdema Ussery, Fr.-RS.
Key losses: CB/Nickel Cha'pelle Brown, S Ben Burney.
Stat line: The Buffs have intercepted nine passes in each of the past two seasons. In 2009, that put them 10th in the Big 12 Conference, with only Missouri (eight) and Kansas (seven) making fewer interceptions.
Bottom line: In Smith and Brown, CU has one of the best corner tandems in the nation. With two years of significant playing time under his belt, Perkins is experienced, while experience is all that Polk lacks. Orms had a dynamic spring as a nickel back and entered fall camp holding that spot with the No. 1 unit. On the depth front in the secondary, there's plenty of talent but it's mostly untested.
Next: Defensive line