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November 17, 2012TUSCALOOSA | He was a four-star prospect and a top-100 overall player coming out of St. Pius X in Atlanta, but even with such lofty accolades it was hard to imagine the true freshman playing much of a role in 2012 for one of the top-rated and most complex defensive units in college football.
Yet there was freshman defensive back Geno Smith getting the first of what is sure to be many college starts Saturday afternoon in a 49-0 win over Western Carolina.
The 6-foot, 182-pound defensive back had played in all 10 of the Crimson Tide's previous games, but UA coach Nick Saban hinted earlier in the week that Smith's role would increase.
Playing almost the entire contest, Smith assisted on a tackle and broke up a pass while mainly playing the Star defensive back position in Alabama's nickel and dime packages.
Saban said Smith's improvement since the summer resulted in his increased opportunities.
"I think he's a lot more confident in what he's doing right now," Saban said. "He has a better understanding of what to do. He and Landon Collins both, just in the last few weeks, sort of got their sea legs underneath them in terms of playing with more confidence, knowing what to do, playing faster."
Alabama's secondary entered Saturday's game vulnerable, evidenced by the 549 collective passing yards allowed the previous two weeks. So whether through necessity or not, Saban said Smith will play a part in the Crimson Tide's defense as the season progresses.
"He didn't have any glaring mess-ups out there today. Made a couple of mental errors on a couple of things, but we feel like he's a guy that's definitely going to have to help us down the road," Saban said.
"A corner-type ability at the Star position, I think lends itself to just having a little bit better cover guy. If he continues to progress, maybe he can give us that. It lets Vinnie (Sunseri) play the dime position when we go to six defensive backs, which is what he's really good at. (Smith's) development is probably critical to us improving defensively."
Sunseri, a sophomore, played the Star position for the majority of the season, and spent time Saturday there as well. He knows firsthand what Smith is being asked to do is difficult for any player, let alone a freshman to master.
"Geno's done amazing. Learning two positions, corner and Star, is really tough," Sunseri said. "From experience, having to be able to balance it is tough because one position is completely different from the other. When you get in there you have to be able to differentiate it too. To be able to go back and forth is really tough. He's developed really well, and he's doing a great job."
Western Carolina didn't offer much of a challenge, totaling 163 yards and throwing the ball only 20 times, and Smith was targeted only a handful of times. Though from an experience standpoint, Saturday's game could pay off for Smith and Alabama with upcoming dates against Auburn and potentially Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
There is no substitute for going through defensive calls and checks in a game situation, and Smith earned positive remarks for his play from his fellow defensive backs.
"Coming into this game, Coach Saban said we were going to put them in to get them some reps," corner back Deion Belue said. "Everything went flawless.
"He's come a long way from camp. It's great to see him knowing the schemes. He has a good upside."
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Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.