Navy goes with odds in safety Smith Senior's nose for ball helps secondary recover

September 26, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Rashad Smith calls himself a gambling man.

"That's just me. I've always been the kind to take risks," said Navy's senior safety, who was named the ECAC Defensive Player of the Week after his performance in the Midshipmen's 46-16 rout of SMU on Saturday.

Judging by the results, Smith is either extremely lucky or good in taking advantage of defensive opportunities. The Atlanta native has come up with a fumble or interception in eight of the past 15 games.

Smith provided the clincher against SMU by converting a fourth-quarter interception into a 25-yard touchdown return. The only negative was the 15-yard penalty he drew for vaulting into the end zone, forcing place-kicker Tom Vanderhorst to kick a 35-yard extra point.

"Yes, we definitely talked about it," said Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie, preparing his Mids for a road game with Duke tomorrow. "In a close game, that could have proved a very costly penalty."

Otherwise, Weatherbie had nothing but praise for his resourceful defensive back.

"Some players have a knack for creating turnovers," he said. "Other guys have a knack for picking the ball off when it's up for grabs. Rashad has a gift for doing both. He's a super athlete who definitely has a nose for the ball."

Smith was also credited with nine tackles against SMU and forced a fumble by quarterback Ramon Flanigan on the 2-yard line that led to a Navy touchdown at the start of the second quarter.

He attributes his knack for finding the ball to a combination of a gambling instinct and experience in reading the offense.

"Sometimes I gamble, and just break on a ball I think I can get to. Occasionally, you get burned, but if you're always hustling to the ball, something good usually happens.

"On my interception against SMU, I kind of baited their quarterback. They were running the same pass route all game long. I made him think I was in a different coverage, and he bit on it. Once I catch the ball in an open field, no one is going to catch me unless he's got 4.3 speed."

A compact 6 feet, 205 pounds, Smith has been making things happen since playing for Cedar Grove High in Ellenwood, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. As a senior, he earned all-county honors, attracting the attention of neighboring Georgia Tech.

"I thought that's where I was headed," he said. "Their coaches and players took me to a lot of campus functions. But at the last minute, they lost interest."

Navy remained in the hunt, along with Tennessee Tech and Marshall. It was a no-brainer for Smith.

"Navy was the only Division I team that recruited me, plus I was thinking about my future after football," said Smith, who got a measure of revenge against Georgia Tech last season with a game-clinching interception.

Smith and co-captain Gervy Alota provide the backbone in Navy's secondary, which was repeatedly burned in the Mids' opener, a 45-31 loss to San Diego State.

It has been the improved play of the secondary and overall defense that led Navy's subsequent routs of Rutgers and SMU while the offense has suffered through fits and starts.

Last season, Gerald Wilson and Enrico Hunter saw limited action as cornerbacks. Both have been forced to play extensively this season due to senior Sean Andrews' nagging leg injury. Each has contributed an interception.

"A lot of people wanted to blame our corners for the San Diego loss," said senior linebacker Travis Cooley. "But I know I made as many mistakes as they did.

"The secondary hasn't given up a long pass the last two weeks and Hunter and Wilson have really stepped it up."

Against SMU, 26 of Navy's 46 points resulted from Mustangs turnovers. The Mids' turnover ratio (plus 2.3) is sixth in the nation.

"In practice, we preach not turning the ball over on offense," said Weatherbie. "Defensively, we harp on stripping the ball and forcing interceptions."

That defensive philosophy will be reinforced this Saturday because Duke will likely start freshman Spencer Romine, who got his baptism last week when the Blue Devils ended a 25-game losing streak by upsetting Army, 20-17.

The thought of going against a new quarterback makes Smith's eyes twinkle.

"Just say I'm looking forward to it," he said.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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