As the North Dakota State University football team prepares to take on the Furman University Paladins in the second round of the FCS Playoffs, fans can take comfort in knowing that all the playoff attention is nothing new to this crop of Bison players.
Nearly all the starters have been experiencing the playoff atmosphere of the Fargodome for the past two years while others have been key contributors to NDSU’s deep playoff runs the past three seasons.
One player experiencing all the attention for the first time as a starter is sophomore cornerback CJ Smith.
“I’m just excited to get going,” said Smith. “With the bye week, I feel like I haven’t played for a year. I am just excited to play a game.”
Smith’s first year starting has been one of consistency. Smith is one of only five defensive players to have started in all 11 games this season. Smith has racked up 29 tackles this season and leads the team in pass breakups with nine.
Smith was one of three players vying for the starting cornerback position, opposite All-American Marcus Williams, in spring and fall camps. Smith said this competition helped him prepare for the season.
“There was a lot of competition for the number two cornerback spot,” said Smith. “That prepared for me the whole season. It gave me a lot of confidence not just for the first game but every game.”
Smith said that in the first couple games, he didn’t know exactly what he was doing every play. As the season went on for Smith, however, he started to get more comfortable with everything happening on the field.
Smith points to two reasons behind his confident play on the field. One happened not by his doing but when senior corner Marcus Williams went down with an injury in the Illinois State game.
“When Marcus went down for a couple games, I had to step into his role,” said Smith. “My confidence has been really high coming off the last couple games, especially with Marcus being by my side helping me”
The other reason has been his relationship with defensive assistant coach and former NDSU cornerback John Richardson.
“Coach Richardson is like a big brother to me,” said Smith. “He makes sure we are on the right track no matter what. He has told me I can be as good as I want to be.”
The relationship was something that happened naturally based on the position Smith plays and the position Richardson use to play.
“I spent a lot more time with the corners so I fully threw myself to them and they throw themselves to me,” said Richardson. “I am able to give him insight on how I played teams in the past and things that were hard on me.”
These types of relationships are ones that tend to last a lifetime. Richardson talked about some of the players and coaches he sought out when he played at NDSU. He said one of them, Freddie Banks, ended up being a groomsman in Richardson’s wedding.
Richardson has also seen the growth of Smith on the field and sees a bright future for the sophomore based on Smith never being satisfied.
“He is growing more and more as a player every week,” said Richardson. “Not being complacent with where he is at but wanting to understand more and more about the defense and how things work.”
It might have seemed daunting for a young corner like Smith to step into a secondary with players like Christian Dudzik, Colten Heagle and Marcus Williams. However, Richardson said that was never an issue for the young corner.
“One thing I have learned about CJ is that he is a real fierce competitor,” said Richardson. “He welcomes the challenge and feels he is capable of making plays when plays are needed.”
Richardson points out that it wasn’t one of those three that sealed NDSU’s victory over Northern Iowa earlier this season but Smith’s interception that finished off the comeback 24-23 victory for the Bison.
“When you go into a veteran group ‘Okay, I will just listen to these guys and I will just do what they tell me to do’,” said Richardson. “As time goes one, he started to learn more of the defense. He has accepted the challenge of he might be a guy people look at more and more.”
Head coach Craig Bohl talked about Smith being a quiet and unassuming guy. Another word you can throw in there is humble. When I asked Smith what he believed he did better than Marcus Williams, he deflected and said he really didn’t know.
When I asked coach Richardson the same question, his response was smiliar.
“Marcus Williams is a two time All-American. He is the real deal at the corner spot,” said Richardson. “It is really hard for me to say what he does better.”
With the guidance of his teammates and the mentoring of Richardson, maybe one day we will be talking about CJ Smith in the same way we talk about Marcus Williams.
You can follow Daniel "Pinto" Gunderson on Twitter at @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook. You can hear him on his weekly podcast show on kfgo.com, 740thefan.com or on iTunes called “The Pinto and White Shadow Show.” Pinto is a radio producer within the Midwest Communications-Fargo company.