Even with four wins in its first five football games, the University of Memphis defense has received its share of criticism this fall. Entering last week's homecoming cat-fight with the Houston Cougars, the Tigers' pass defense was ranked 114th out of 117 Division I programs. And while holding Houston to 14 points will soothe some egos as the Tigers enjoy an off week, the defense will be seen as this squad's Achilles heel until it shuts down a Conference USA power like Louisville or Southern Miss. But as the scrutiny intensifies, there's one player who continues to be immune to finger-pointing.
Junior free safety Wesley Smith (a native of Oxford, Mississippi) was named all-conference in 2003 when he was second on the team in tackles with 98. He also led the Tigers in interceptions (three) and pass break-ups (eight). Smith had two tackles for loss in the New Orleans Bowl victory last December. And he's getting better.
The nature of Smith's position doesn't lend itself to highlight reels or stat sheets. He's not in one-on-one coverage on every play, as are his teammates at cornerback. And if he's leading the team in tackles -- as he did with 17 at Arkansas State -- it's because he's cleaning up the mistakes of linemen and linebackers. Free safety is a position that puts a premium on instincts for the game as much as strength or speed. And Smith showed plenty of all three against Houston.
Late in the first quarter, Cougar quarterback Kevin Kolb took a quick step backward and tossed a screen pass to Kendal Briles. It's a play designed to attack a defensive hole almost immediately after the snap. On this occasion, though, the hole was sealed by Smith, who wrapped up Briles for a two-yard loss. And remember, Smith starts each play about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
And strength? Four minutes into the second quarter, Kolb delivered a pass to wideout Vincent Marshall for a 13-yard gain. The reason it wasn't a 14-yard gain was that Smith hit Marshall so hard the Cougar receiver flew five yards out of bounds. Again, a play made at the sideline by a player who sets up between the hash marks. Strength, speed, and instinct. (It helps to be lucky too. Marshall had Smith beaten for a touchdown just before halftime, only to drop the ball.)
Smith was in the middle of a gang-tackle that stopped Houston on a fourth-and-three attempt late in the third quarter that all but killed the visitors' chances for a comeback. From that point on, it was the next chapter in the coronation of tailback DeAngelo Williams, who had the biggest rushing day -- 262 yards -- in Tiger history, not to mention his second four-touchdown game of the season. Oh yeah, and Williams eclipsed Dave Casinelli's career rushing record in the first quarter. Talk about a player worth watching.
Williams' heroics aside, keep your eyes on number 45 in the Tiger secondary as the season's second half unfolds. And as well as he played last Saturday, he was hurt. "I made Wesley a captain today," noted Tiger coach Tommy West after the Houston contest was in the books. "He's the first junior this year [to be named captain]. Wesley Smith was hurt a week ago, he was hurt this week ... and refused to not play. He's got a terrible shoulder, and we've got to get him well during this open week. But he's a tough, tough guy. It looked like he was making every tackle in the running game."
The Tigers contained the Houston passing attack, giving up 220 yards, the lowest total allowed since the opener at Ole Miss. And they did so with Smith's safety partner -- Scott Vogel -- on the sideline recovering from knee surgery. (Vogel's expected back for the Tulane game October 16th.) With the U of M offense hitting on all cylinders (more than 450 total yards in each of their last four games), it's incumbent on the defense to make a successful season a special season. Here's hoping Wesley Smith's shoulder gets better, and soon.
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