March 24, 2012

Smith will embrace whatever role he's given

P.J. Smith knows what it's like to go through the ups and downs of college football. He's felt the seesaw emotions of having playing time dangled in front of his face, then yanked away moments later.

Two years ago as a sophomore, Smith started three games at the beginning of the season and appeared to be the future of the safety position at Nebraska. But the coaching staff became displeased with the tackling habits of he and fellow safety Rickey Thenarse, and the duo was uprooted midseason in favor of Austin Cassidy and Courtney Osborne.

Last season, Osborne struggled with injuries and his spot appeared to have Smith's name written all over it. But junior college transfer Daimion Stafford wowed the coaches with his tackling ability and won the position battle, leaving Smith with just one start in his junior campaign.

Now in his senior year, Smith faces a familiar scenario. With Cassidy graduated, the safety spot next to Stafford is wide open and Smith's credentials are just as good, if not better, than any other candidates.

But he's learned his lesson. Regardless of the competition's outcome, Smith isn't going to sweat it.

"Last year I wanted to start but I didn't," Smith said. "I just want to help this team get better. That's the bottom line. I don't sit there and pout about it. When your time comes, you have to take full advantage of it.

"If I start, I start. If I don't, I don't."

To win the position, Smith will have to quickly grasp the tendencies of some new faces on the coaching staff. Gone is defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, replaced by former defensive line coach John Papuchis.

And perhaps more importantly, secondary coach Corey Raymond departed to join LSU's staff. Filling the void is Corey Joseph, the third coach the position group has had in as many years.

Smith said the scheme and terminology remains unchanged with the new coaches, but there are differences in how the new guys coach technique and footwork.

"It's been tough, especially with the things they teach you," Smith said. "Everybody has their own little technique on how to run and that type of stuff. You have to develop a relationship with the new coach and see what type of guy he is. At the end of the day, it's a business. Coach Joseph is a hell of a coach and we love him. Out of all three of the coaches, he's working us the hardest."

Junior cornerback Andrew Green agreed that the transition hasn't been easy, but he believes the defensive backs are progressing under the new leadership.

"We're just trying to drop those old habits and pick up the new ones," he said.

Hypothetically, new coaches mean a clean slate. A more seasoned player with starting experience is obviously going to get the first crack at winning a position, which figures to put Smith in prime position in his battle with Osborne, Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson, among others.

But Smith is content to make any contribution and isn't going to concern himself with the depth chart right now. The new attitude is part of the reason he was so shocked at the reactions he heard from some of the younger players after a meeting two weeks ago.

"They were like, 'I want to be with the ones,'" Smith said. "I was like 'We've only had one practice, man. Come on.' I told them what they need to do is don't worry about who's in front of you right now. When you have an opportunity, bust your tail at it."

That mindset is very different from the one Smith had a few years ago. Getting his starting spot swiped wasn't easy to take, but he thinks it has made him a better player and a stronger person.

Plus, there's no reason to worry about starting now. No position will be decided for months. So while the young guns concern themselves with the depth chart, Smith is just going to go full bore through practice and see what happens.

"Don't worry about the depth chart right now," Smith said. "Who cares? The depth chart isn't going to come out until the season starts anyway. So whatever group you're with, just go 100 miles an hour. It doesn't matter right now. It's about getting better."

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