Jeremy Smith is still scanning the field, making pre-snap reads, and breaking down opponents the same way he did when he was in high school. Only now, instead of performing the diagnosis from behind the line of scrimmage, he's doing it from the Arizona State secondary as a cover safety.
What hasn't changed: Watching plays in their full entirety unfold before him.
“When you’re a quarterback, you can see everything, see the defense,” Smith said. “You can recognize coverages and everything.”
Smith, a redshirt freshman, is in the process of learning a position on the side of the ball he’s spent his entire career working to expose.
The change has offered him an alternative outlook.
“Playing quarterback and going to defense, switching it over, I get to see the same thing,” Smith said, “but in a different perspective.”
This isn’t the first time Smith has been asked by the Sun Devils’ coaching staff to play a different position. The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder was recruited out of Fort Bend Marshall High School (Texas) to play wide receiver in Tempe. However, Smith said that initial move felt “about the same really” because “I played receiver in high school.”
With no prior experience, the flip to defensive back hasn’t come as easily.
“Adjusting to it, since it’s my first time over there, I’m getting used to it,” Smith said. “I’m starting to understand it more and more each day.”
ASU head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett share a philosophy of putting their best 11 players on the field.
“You look at your personnel and you say, ‘How can I make this work?’” said Bennett during Arizona State’s spring media day.
The fiery 61-year-old assistant said it’s a philosophical method he planned on further implementing upon his arrival. With this in mind, he approached Smith during winter workouts with a proposal to the underclassman about playing defense, specifically safety.
“He asked me when was lifting, before spring started he asked me if I had ever played defense. I told him no, and he said, ‘We’re gonna try you out (on defense) during spring,’” Smith recalled. “They haven’t talked about moving me, so I think it’s gonna stick all the way through.”
Assurance of his new duties come for good reason. Smith has been “showing out a little bit” throughout the spring by recording multiple interceptions during team sessions. (He says he’s logged five total.) His performance thus far has garnered appraisal from Graham.
“He’s really been a natural fit there at safety,” Graham said. “I feel really good about him. That’s probably where he’ll stay. He’s done a good job.”
Perhaps his past experience out wide and under center has been useful.
“I know what the receiver’s doing,” said Smith. “I know how they’re breaking their routes. I know how the quarterback throws the ball, so when I break on it, it’s easy to get to it.”
Supplementing Smith’s exposure to receiver is the leadership of veteran members of the secondary unit. Junior defensive back Kareem Orr and senior safety Marcus Ball were two figures Smith noted as offering guidance during the change.
“Kareem helped out a little bit. Him and Marcus Ball helped me out,” he said, particularly with “more techniques and learning how to stay over my man in one-on-ones.”
Smith is still working on “learning your keys, and staying focused and staying on top of your man” in his new role, but despite the process, is enjoying the leadership aspect of it.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Making a lot of calls, getting everybody in the spots that they need to be in, and it’s cool. I like being a leader, like helping people out. Playing quarterback, you have to talk to people, so it’s natural.”
Natural, sure. But beneath the cover of a grin, Smith admitted that if he could, he’d go back to playing on offense.
“For right now, I’ll make the transition to play defense,” he said.
Nonetheless, as for being on the delivering end of a tackle as opposed to being the one trying to avoid the contact, Smith was inviting of the opportunity.
“I know if the time comes, I bet I can hit somebody,” he said. “I have that mentality, I’m willing to hit.”
Graham would likely concur with the sentiment. The sixth-year coach was complimentary of Smith’s selfless leadership amidst the position change.
“Jeremy’s ready,” Graham said. “He’s a guy who’s really smart. I like his attitude being a team player. He’s gone over and done a really good job for us.”
The Sun Devils will hope that he continues to do well for them throughout the spring and throughout the new season, too.