Days from the start of his final season at Clemson, strong safety Robert Smith misses playing with the football in his hands.
“Every day,” said Smith, chuckling with no hint of remorse for choosing defense after a productive career as a spread quarterback at Woodlands High in Dorchester.
There was a time at Clemson that his knowledge and skill might have earned him a shot at quarterback. But the game’s evolution made him valuable watching offenses come to him.
Recruited by defensive line coach Dan Brooks, Smith was deemed a football intellect before he arrived. Former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele talked about how Smith impressed him with a marker and white board in his hands, understanding how and why a defense functions.
“I grew up with football all my life,” Smith said. “My father was a football junky, the president of the football little league. So I was around football from 5 o’clock to 10:30 every night.
“When I’m back there I have a perception of what the offense is trying to do, what they’re thinking and what routes and stems they may try.”
As his senior season rushes forward, Smith has been prepared and focused after leading the secondary in tackles as a junior, including 10 in the Orange Bowl. Sophomore corner Cordrea Tankersley said it was evident beginning last spring that Smith had taken his game to another level.
Smith mentors Tankersley and sophomore free safety candidates Jayron Kearse and Jadar Johnson, and he’s encouraged by what Clemson’s new secondary might accomplish, with deep talent at corner and smart athletic safeties. “Jadar is real smart, strong and competitive,” he said. “Jayron has freakish talent.”
The “quality depth” at safety and corner may push the competition to a game day decision, said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, with Smith as the “quarterback” in the secondary, directing pre-snap traffic.
“Just being able to be out there and say watch this over route, watch this slant,” Smith said, “just being a student of the game. A lot of players don’t realize how much the film room counts.
“Sammy Watkins probably had one of the highest football IQ’s I’ve known. He knew what the defense was doing because of the time he spent in the film room.”
It’s a responsibility Smith cherishes, which is why he spends hours poring over video, and it comes naturally because his father also pressed him to develop good study habits.
“It’s about being the best. That’s how you do it,” Smith said. “It’s my time. I had some great leaders in front of me. They let me know what it takes to get people to follow them.”
Smith goal this season is for the defense to leave an incomparable legacy, “to have my senior remembered as having one of Clemson’s best defenses.”
“That’s my goal everyday.”
As for quarterback, where he generated 11,318 yards and 124 touchdowns in high school, Smith said he occasionally reminds offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ that he, too, was a productive quarterback once upon a time.
“I’ll holler to him, ‘Hey cowboy, don’t forget about me.’ ”