FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—On a crisp, sunny December afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban, in a rage, yanked off his signature straw hat at Alabama football practice.
“We just worked on that Geno!” he boomed, as true freshman cornerback Geno Smith had just gotten beat by a receiver in a one-on-one drill. “Come on!”
Being called out by Saban is nothing new for Smith. It happens every day. It started the first week of fall camp. Certain days are worse than others. Some guys can take it, some can’t.
“It can go two ways,” said tight end Michael Williams when asked what it’s like when Saban regularly chews a player out. “You can see progress or you can see somebody totally disappear off the map. The ones that keep going and can take the teaching and take out the hollering for a minute, those are the ones that come out good.”
Smith is one of those guys. Though it seems like he gets yelled at more than any other player during media viewing at practice, a coach like Saban wouldn’t waste his time if he didn’t see the potential. And Smith knows that.
“In the heat of the moment, you’re like, ‘Man, he’s always on me,’” Smith said. “But I expected it being a freshman. I think I’ve done a great job handling it, especially early in the season. I did have my ups and downs, but I never let it get to me. It’s been a challenge, but it’s worth it.”
Smith is used to handling adversity, though. Raised by a single mother, Gina Matias, and his grandmother, Jacqueline Matias, Smith was humbled at a young age. Then in high school at St. Pius X in Atlanta, Ga., his football coach would get on his case because he wanted him to be the best. Kind of like Saban, Smith said, except the Alabama coach is on a different level.
Veteran defensive backs, such as Dee Milliner, Robert Lester and Vinnie Sunseri have become mentors to Smith. They’ve been in his shoes before and have helped the youngster through the season by encouraging him and telling him not to give up.
“In fall camp and early in the season, it was bad,” Smith said. “But they were just like, ‘Stay focused. He sees a future in you, so just stay positive.’”
Smith’s thick skin, along with his talent, drive, confidence and skill set, has earned him playing time in almost every game this season. His first start came against Western Carolina when John Fulton was sidelined with turf toe. Smith has started every game since. He’s recorded eight tackles and broken up two passes thus far.
With the pressure of Saban weighing heavy on him, it’s admirable how Smith has been able to grasp Alabama’s complex nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six DBs) packages. A cornerback, Smith plays the Star position when there are six guys in the game, whether that’s a sub linebacker or extra defensive back. It took all of camp and a few games into the season, but by the bye week, things slowed down and Smith understood his role.
“Some guys progress rapidly,” said Saban. “He’s shown a lot of maturity in how he’s progressed. We try to teach guys when they’re freshmen, two positions (safety and Money; cornerback and Star). It takes them a little longer to get into it. Geno being a corner and trying to learn Star, we feel really good about the progress he’s made.”
Saban works with the defensive backs, mainly the cornerbacks, everyday in practice and despite the verbal pounding, Smith cherishes that time. He relishes the opportunity to learn. In fact, getting to work with Saban on a daily basis is one of the reasons why he chose to come to Alabama instead of Auburn.
Older players have taken notice of Smith’s progression. Williams, who goes up against him on occasion in practice, noted how far the freshman has come in a matter of months, and said that he reminds him of former Tider and current Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Javier Arenas.
“He’s a little feisty guy,” Williams said. “Reminds me of Javy, to be honest, back when I was young and Javy used to beat me up a little bit. He has the capability and I think he has a great future.”
As Smith sat in the stands of Sun Life Stadium at Alabama’s BCS Media Day Saturday, he took a deep breath. It’s ironic for him to be at the national championship in South Florida for several reasons. He grew up a Miami Hurricanes fan because his grandparents are from Fort Lauderdale, and also can’t believe that it was just a year ago he and his mother were rushing home to watch Alabama play LSU in last year’s title game.
“And a year later I’m here and have a really good chance to play a good amount,” he said. “It’s all really been a blessing.”
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