Commentary

Eric Smith has brains -- and ambition

Jets' versatile safety has the right mental makeup, but don't overlook his athleticism

Updated: August 24, 2010, 9:33 PM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com

On a Sunday in 2001, the Groveport-Madison High School football team lost its quarterback for the season. That night, the coaches held a meeting. The team ran a triple-option offense, and who the heck could get that complicated mess memorized before Friday night's game against Gahanna Lincoln?

Quarterbacks coach Todd Boggs suggested senior wide receiver/defensive back Eric Smith.

Boggs said he sat down with Smith for an hour and 15 minutes and, by the end, the kid had memorized the reads and that week in practice was able to make them by instinct. On Friday night, Smith led Groveport-Madison to victory.

[+] EnlargeEric Smith
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesEric Smith relishes his role, but his ultimate goal is a starting job.

"It was the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life," Boggs said. "He ran the offense like he'd been doing it since day one."

A year and a half ago, when Rex Ryan got to the Jets, Smith was a safety on the roster, but Ryan had his safety and that guy was Jim Leonhard. Who was Eric Smith? Some guy about to be cut.

"Eh," Ryan remembered thinking. "Probably move on from this guy."

Said Smith: "[Ryan] wanted to get his guys in here and for a while it was a little nerve-racking. I felt like I had to change his opinion of me. I knew I wasn't the guy that he thought I was."

It didn't take long for Ryan to see why Smith, who could figure out a season's worth of offensive schemes in less time than it takes for dinner and a movie, was his kind of player.

"When he decided he was going to show us what kind of player he was, that's what turned my head," Ryan said.

James Ihedigbo, another backup safety in the same situation, explained how he and Smith looked at the change in leadership.

"We were here when our former coach was here, but we like to look at it like we're Rex's guys," Ihedigbo said. "We play like Jets, how he likes to play and we exemplify how he thinks football should be played."

Smith's not a starter, but when the starting defense is in, Smith is often part of the operation. He may be asked to block, rush the quarterback or defend the backfield. But he loves rushing, and has a favorite situation.

"Third-and-long because you're blitzing," Smith said. "Pretty much all the pressure is off, you just have to get to the quarterback."

His job description couldn't be more fluid unless the Jets brought him in for the Wildcat.

"In the system with the crazy things that Rex likes to do, the more players you have that can play those different roles -- it's hard for an offense to account for them," Leonhard said. "What is he? Is he a linebacker? Is he a safety? Is he blitzing or is he in coverage? It's really hard on an offense when you have players like that."

Smith gets recognized for his mental acuity so much that Leonhard said his athleticism is too often overlooked. Smith, now in his fifth season, is smart enough to relish his role, but at the same time has plenty of ambition.

"I would like to start and that's my ultimate goal and that's what I'm working toward every day," Smith said, "but I understand Brodney [Pool] does a great job and Jim [Leonhard] does a great job, so they may not have a starting position for me. But we run so many different packages, it's not like anybody's a starter. We probably have the same amount of reps."

Smith may be near Bart Scott in the locker room, but they couldn't be more different in temperament. You could walk into the clubhouse every day and still miss how funny Smith can be.

"Behind closed doors when he's with us in a meeting, he's cracking the most jokes," said Ihedigbo. His sense of humor is kind of dry, "but explosively funny at the same time."

On the last night of training camp in Cortland, N.Y., Ryan had a Jeopardy night. There was a spelling category, with deceptively simple words like "rhythm," "cemetery" and "handkerchief" just waiting to trip players up. Some of them walked up for their turn and you could tell they were out of their comfort zone.

So many guys started running their answer by Smith that Ryan had to get tough.

"We had a rule, you can only use Eric Smith once," Ryan said. "And he was the difference in the game by the way."

That makes more than one.

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

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