Senior safety P.J. Smith has gone through the highs and lows of a five-year Nebraska football career.
After redshirting in 2008, Smith bounced in and out of the Husker lineup for a few years. It seemed he would be in for a larger dose of playing time as a sophomore, but the safety fell back on the depth chart after starting a few games. Again, he fought his way back into the mix a year ago but was never able to grab hold of a starting spot.
All the while, Smith kept fighting for more playing time, doing anything he could to see the field. As he bounced in and out of the lineup, Smith was a rock on special teams, making 10 tackles on special teams in 2011.
As a senior, Smith is a seasoned veteran. He’s been on the field, in a multitude of roles, for the better part of three seasons. When former safety Austin Cassidy graduated in 2011, Smith was ready to assume his role as leader of the secondary.
Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph is impressed with the way his senior safety has handled the responsibility.
“P.J. has been consistent for us,” Joseph said. “He does a good job of getting us lined up along with (Daimion) Stafford, and he’s probably a guy who’s playing his best ball since he’s been here. I’m really proud of him, and he’s getting the rewards of his work.”
Smith describes himself as a vocal leader in Nebraska’s defensive backfield. He has to be, he says. Smith is responsible for the getting the Huskers into the correct coverages and spends much of his time yelling out instructions to his fellow defensive backs.
“The safeties make the calls, and the corners, they just let us know that they got the calls from us,” Smith said. “They have to look to us because we are checking things, and we have to let them know what we are going to do. That tells them what they are going to do.”
Smith has a solid grasp of Nebraska’s defensive schemes, and he is able to read his keys smoothly this season, he says. But that’s not the way it has always been.
As a young player, Smith’s head was spinning with all the nuances required of his position. Coach Bo Pelini’s defensive schemes and terminology didn’t come naturally to the young safety.
“It took me a little while,” Smith said. “It’s a tough system to play in, and these are tough coaches to play for. You get better every single week with them. If you do the things they are asking you to do, you will be fine, but it’s a challenge, though. It’s not easy.”
Pelini asks a lot of his players, according to Smith. There isn’t much room for error when you play for a coach who expects perfection on every snap.
“He brings so much fire and passion to the game,” Smith said. “He wants everything to be 100 percent correct, and as young guys, you don’t really understand that.”
Smith gets it now. In his final go round as a player, he is loving every minute of his college career. Just as Cassidy was for him a year ago, Smith tries to be a mentor to his younger teammates, spreading his knowledge and enthusiasm for the Nebraska defense.
“I keep guys focused in the secondary,” he said. “I try to keep everybody up and looking forward to the next play.”