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December 7, 2012

Freshman review: Geno Smith steps in

In its most important play of the season in its most important game of the season, the University of Alabama asked a true freshman to help win the game.

That Geno Smith doesn't find that fact overly impressive comes as no surprise to those who know the cornerback from Atlanta well. It's that confidence that put him in that position in the first place.

Oh, don't get him wrong. Smith is thrilled to have helped the Crimson Tide to its 23rd Southeastern Conference championship and a trip South Florida for the BCS National Championship game. But don't expect him to cause a stir because he did his job. Why make a big deal over doing the very thing he was brought to Tuscaloosa to do?

The 6-foot, 182-pound cornerback was covering the slot receiver, Georgia's Chris Conley, as the Star defensive back, a position he took over from Vinnie Sunseri after the Texas A&M game. When Aaron Murray's deflected pass caromed into Conley's hands, the game ended at the feet of Smith.

It's been an exciting ending to Smith's freshman campaign, one that will conclude in Miami Gardens, Fla., in a month. He's played in 12 of Alabama's 13 games, recording eight tackles, two pass break-ups and two passes defended.

It is the Georgia game, though, that Smith favors thus far. Playing against the Bulldogs coaching staff that recruited him and against friends from his home state, Smith earned bragging rights with a stop on the heart-stopping final series.

"We practice two-minute every Thursday, so we were prepared," Smith said. "We knew what they were going to run. We knew they were going to try and go vertical. We played our calls and got the victory. I never really had any doubts in my mind. We've been down before, and we always came back so there was no doubt.

"It was great. You know being at home, playing against Georgia, my home school, I had my family here and my friends watching. It's a great feeling to come out here and get a victory."

Smith's role increased dramatically after the Texas A&M game, when the Aggies created mismatches by using a faster slot receiver matched up against an Alabama linebacker or safety. After that loss, UA coach Nick Saban said the team would look to fortify the defense by giving Smith a look at the Star position.

"We never sat down about it, but after (Texas) A&M we made a change," Smith said. "I've been doing my best to just do my job. Just stay focused on my keys and look at my man when we're playing man coverage. It basically comes down to just doing the little things right.

"Going from corner to Star, the variables are different. You have to play different coverages differently. Just lining up and trying to differentiate between the two is tough but now I've got a good grasp on it.

"It's a very complex defense. It's an NFL type defense. The language and everything is NFL based. Once you practice it you learn it. Me myself, I've messed up in the games before. When you mess up you learn. I would say after the bye week (it clicked). Definitely before the bye week I was making a lot of errors. But after the bye week everything started to click. I was staying focused."

If junior cornerback Dee Milliner forgoes his senior season to enter the NFL draft, which many observers feel he will, Smith is a top candidate to play the corner opposite Deion Belue. He could also stay at Star. He doesn't care where he plays as long as he's contributing to the team.

"The year has definitely been up and down," he said. "I was never really down about not playing. I knew we had great guys in the secondary. I was just waiting my turn. Now that my turn is here I'm trying to take full advantage of it."

And it's not just football at which he's excelling. At Alabama's football banquet last Sunday night, Smith was one of five Crimson Tide players honored with the Commitment to Academic Excellence Award.

Oh, and he's a heck of a video game player too, a skill Saban has poked at him about before.

"We were in a meeting once and he said, 'You know you had flats, right? Maybe if you didn't play so much FIFA 2013 you would've known that,'" Smith said. "I laughed."

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron.suttles@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.

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