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There are typically more than 100 players on a college football team, and they all have two things in common.
(1) They all have a craving for playing time.
(2) They have five years of eligibility to satisfy it.
That means college football teams are rife with competition, and no player’s hold on a starting spot is immune to it.
Wisconsin senior cornerback Devin Smith learned that the hard way last season.
Starting all 13 games in the 2009-10 season as a sophomore, Smith led the team in passes defended (11) and pass breakups (nine) while finishing fourth in tackles (55). He also snagged two interceptions.
Heading into his junior season, many expected Smith to become one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs. Instead, he lost his starting spot and spent more time on the sidelines than on the field.
At this time one year ago, as the football team gathered for its spring and summer camps, Smith fell victim to that competition. Teammates Antonio Fenelus and Niles Brinkley outplayed him for the two starring roles at corner.
“I guess there was just good competition all the way around,” he said. “We were just constantly competing, and I started fighting injuries towards the end of summer as well. I just had to take the role I had and just do anything I could to make our team better.”
Fenelus and Brinkley proceeded to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten designations, as voted on by the coaches (Fenelus also earned First Team by the media), while Smith was forced to fill in as a nickelback. He appeared in all 13 games, amassing 30 tackles and one interception.
According to defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash – who now enters his second year at UW – last year’s reduced role humbled Smith but also taught him how to return to the starting lineup.
“It’s difficult for anybody to go through that when they’ve been the guy on the field on game day, and then all of a sudden you’re standing there watching,” Ash said. “That’s a tough deal to go through, but he accepted it. Eventually he understood what he needed to do, and he’s gone and done it.”
But with every year comes new opportunities. Brinkley has since gone on to graduate, leaving a clear shot for Smith to regain the role he enjoyed two years ago.
Now, Smith is responding to any and all competition.
“Before, things came easy for Devin, and then when other guys started to step up, he didn’t step up and now he’s learned to compete, and he’s competing right now to make himself the best he can be,” Ash said.
After two weeks of spring camp, Smith has earned playing time with the first-team defense and appears to be the No. 1 candidate to start opposite Fenelus at cornerback this season.
Throughout camp, Smith has dealt with a sprained AC joint – a joint in the top of the shoulder – although he has said it’s a “really minor” injury. The UW staff has given him a green jersey like quarterbacks wear for practice to make other players aware.
However, that green jersey hasn’t prevented him from at least some kinds of drills involving contact. Thursday, he participated in bump and run drills with wide receivers and, despite his maimed shoulder, did not allow a single receiver to get past him without first disrupting the route too much. Saturday, he again practiced with the first team defense in a scrimmage.
“I definitely think he’s embracing the role as the starting corner,” redshirt senior safety Aaron Henry said. “He’s definitely upped his level of play. He really hasn’t been doing anything that he wasn’t doing initially, but I think it’s just the confidence level. Last year he wasn’t as confident. I’m sure he’d tell you that, but going into spring ball, he’s a whole lot more confident. He knows he can play with anybody in the country.”
When asked where the Smith’s strengths lie, Ash mentioned that although he does have a lot of talent, it’s the football IQ and technique that allow Smith to succeed.
That’s lucky for Ash, because Smith still hopes to improve in those areas – as well as others – in the leadup to his senior year.
“I’m really just focusing on my technique as a whole,” Smith said. “Also, I’m just trying to make sure I become a smarter player, just recognizing certain situations, being able to play a lot faster and just becoming a lock-down corner on my side where the rest of my team can count on me.”
Now that’s competing.