The University of Kansas Jayhawks defensive backfield will have the attention of many draftniks as Anthony Smithson returns for his senior season. The safety is a sure tackler with the ability to play in both man and zone cover schemes. Matty Brown covers one player to watch from each team in the Big 12 in the run up to the kickoff of college football season.
Watching University of Kansas football has not been enjoyable in recent years. One of the few reasons to watch the team is play-making safety Anthony “Fish” Smithson. Despite the program having an abysmal combined record of 3-21 in Smithson’s two years at Kansas – Smithson spent his freshman year at Hartnell College – and the defense giving up the most points in the nation, an average of seven touchdowns per game, he has managed to stand out – and in a good way. Heading into his final year as a Jayhawk, the All-Big 12 Second Teamer hopes to build on his college football career and increase his draft stock.
Smithson is a guy who stands out on tape, which is reflected in the impressive numbers he put up last year. Smithson was KU’s leading tackler, with 111 tackles (10.1 per game), in addition to leading the nation in solo tackles, averaging 7.9 stops per game. Two of these tackles were for a loss, and he forced a fumble and recovered another last season. When defending the ball in the air, he had three pass breakups and two interceptions.
The reason for the large amount of tackles Smithson had is due, in large measure, to Kansas’s atrocious overall offense and defense, as explained by Sean Cordy:
For Smithson, his high tackle value stemmed from Kansas’s defense being on the field for over half the game. Thanks to fast Big 12 offenses, those 32 minutes turn into an onslaught of plays in rapid succession. Kansas was defending an average of 80.6 plays per game, meaning Smithson accounted for approximately 11 percent of defensive stops.
Lower statistics for Smithson should be expected next year as this Kansas team can only improve.
Smithson’s tackling ability prevented many touchdowns for Kansas, as he played the “safety” role true to its name: lessening the impact of others’ mistakes and sweeping up trouble. Here are a few of his crucial tackles, emblematic of his regular play:
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At the moment of impact, even though Smithson hurtles into runners at full speed, he can not really deliver that big of a blow. Often, he goes for the low, conservative tackle over the thumper. In fairness, this is the best tackle for a player who is the last line of defense trying to prevent an otherwise certain touchdown. It would be nice, however, to see him add a de-cleater to his game. On the occasions he does go higher on his man, he wraps up well but does not thump particularly hard; this ability may be limited by his 190-pound frame.
Despite putting up huge tackle numbers, Smithson should have registered even more. A critical area that Smithson needs to tweak in his game is the angles he takes on ball carriers, a point recognised by his defensive coordinator Clint Bowen. Although Smithson has shown on tape the ability to track the near-side hip of runners when dancing, and he refined his tackling throughout the season, he needs to do this more regularly. Below are examples of him failing in this area:
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Against the run, Smithson comes downhill aggressively, while at the same time staying in his lane and showing proper gap discipline. He is fairly good at playing force defender against the run, forcing running backs inside.
In the following clip, Smithson waits until the potential cutback is gone before heading off in pursuit of the running back, an example of excellent gap discipline and knowledge of what a running back is trying to do:
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Here, he reads the sweep brilliantly, coming downhill near-instantly and wrapping up well to limit the play to a one yard gain:
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The Big 12 might be the best conference for developing pass coverage, as Smithson recognised when enrolling at Kansas:
It fit more my playing style, the Big 12. If you’re a DB and you do not like the Big 12 Conference, then you probably do not like football that much. I love the way they throw the ball around, and I love competition.
Smithson’s versatility in pass coverage makes him an attractive prospect; he has played as a single-high safety, in two-high formations, and also as a slot defensive back. This should serve him well as an NFL prospect, as it did for Tyran Mathieu and Jaylen Ramsey. The majority of Smithson’s snaps saw him positioned high, due to his coverage skills and the need for his last-ditch effort tackles, as opposed to being put in the box.
It is rather hard to analyse Smithson’s play in zone coverage, as KU’s linebackers have a tendency to not drop deep enough in their zones, resulting in post routes and deep curls materialising into a big weak spot for Kansas last season. This meant that Smithson, despite having deep responsibility, had to make a break on the ball – but only once it was thrown so as to avoid giving up the area of the field behind him. This series of examples illustrate the issues with the Jayhawks’ defensive scheme and linebackers and how it impacted Smithson’s options and play:
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Smithson is good at getting initial depth when dropping deep, aided by his fast back pedal. This enhances his ability to break on the ball with speed. When covering deep, he displays the right amount of cautiousness when the offense runs play action; rarely being fooled.
He is also good at breaking off his zone to head into another one if he spots trouble. This trait, though, has caused issues at times, as he has been caught cheating over to one side, pre-snap, rather than sticking directly to his zone:
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Somewhat surprisingly for a safety, Smithson spent a fair amount of his time in man coverage. Often he was in man coverage when lined up over a slot wide receiver. He had the most difficulty with zig and corner routes.
Here, the motion creates a late adjustment in Kansas’s defense, leaving Smithson in man coverage on the slot wide receiver. He over-commits to the slant, leaving the zig route open for the completion:
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Like his play against the run, Smithson is quick to come downhill on passes. He also runs towards where the ball is thrown – a good sign for potential tip drills. Again, as with his tackling, there are areas of his pass defense that need more consistency. The main one is his playing of the ball once it is in the air. In this trio of clips he attacks the ball brilliantly:
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In this clip, though, he waits for the football to come to him, which is obviously not going to happen, particularly against a premier wide receiver such as Corey Coleman:
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The above clip does contain some positive signs though. Smithson put himself in the best possible position to make a play on the ball, hinting at the fluid hips he possesses. (He does flip them quickly when required.) Perhaps this play was just a moment of hesitation which cost Smithson an interception. One way or another, It is a good coaching point for him for the future.
Smithson’s ability to attack the football improved as the season progressed. He spent time at quarterback at his high school, Highland, which should give him some insight into what a QB is trying to do. Smithson’s skill in coverage appeared to lead to quarterbacks throwing away from him to a degree. Offenses also tended to put their number one receiver to the opposite side of him. Of course, this could equally well be a function of teams trying to exploit the lesser players around him as fear of Smithson per se.
It is obviously hard to tell without a combine how quick Smithson is. He gets good depth and shows good acceleration on tape, with no player running past him. Hazarding a guess, his speed is no slower than a 4.5 forty.
His size, listed at 5-11, 190lbs, needs some work; he could do with adding a bit more muscle in order to deliver a greater impact. He has worked on this over the offseason, though, which is an exciting proposition.
Smithson diagnoses fairly quickly whether a play is a run or pass. This vital ability should improve heading into his senior year. As mentioned previously, he exercises a good amount of cautiousness, never gambling and giving up deep responsibility.
His technique against certain plays proves that he is a savvy football player. Against the read option, he was often the man responsible for the quarterback. He did this with good disguise, going slightly inside but not overcommitting, whilst maintaining eye contact with the mesh point. When defending a runner on a perimeter screen, he understands how to use his sideline. He also attacks the outside shoulder of the blocker. His ability to recognize a screen very quickly is excellent, and, as a result, he stays disciplined on fake screens.
Smithson appears to have a great mindset, embracing the role of a leader and mentor now that he is in his senior year at the same time as understanding he can further improve.
Fish Smithson when asked his advice to Tyrone Miller: "Really just about not getting complacent or entitled." Fish is a winner. #kufball
— Tom Keegan (@TomKeeganLJW) March 30, 2016
Smithson has the invaluable experience of his brother, Shaky, to tap into. Shaky played as a wide receiver for Utah and the Green Bay Packers (pre-season only). Despite the road to the NFL being a tough one, Fish has shown the sort of resilience required to make it to the pros. He overcame a lot as a child, coming out of a rough part of Baltimore, whilst being forced to move around between family members due to eight children being too much financially for his parents. His raw playmaking ability and instincts could see him drafted in later rounds, and he would definitely be worth looking at as a mid to late-round pick in a shallow 2017 safety class.
Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s piece on Kenneth Dixon and what the Ravens should expect from him this season.