Army running back Kell Walker came out of the backfield and raced past Ohio State safety Damon Webb.
The Black Knights were attempting something rare for them, a pass, and for a moment it looked like it would go for a touchdown. Safety Erick Smith came out of seemingly nowhere, though, to make a diving breakup, almost intercepting the ball in the process.
Later, Smith bailed out the Buckeyes’ struggling kickoff coverage unit when he made a tackle that might have saved a touchdown.
“I was just doing my job,” Smith said of both plays in Ohio State’s 38-7 victory over Army on Saturday.
After three years as a backup, he’s just happy to have a major job to do. The senior entered Ohio State from the Cleveland Glenville pipeline along with cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Both were tabbed as future stars.
Like Lattimore, Smith’s progress at Ohio State was sidetracked by injury. He suffered a torn ACL during his sophomore season. But while Lattimore blossomed immediately when finally healthy last year and became a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, Smith’s road to success has taken longer.
He was behind Vonn Bell early in his career and then watched in 2016 as Malik Hooker became an overnight star and first-rounder himself.
“You just have to stay patient and take things day by day,” Smith said.
Even now, the job is not necessarily his. He is sharing time with Jordan Fuller at the safety spot next to Webb.
“We have like four or five legit safeties,” Smith said. “Us doing a rotation is not problematic in the room at all. Whichever guy goes out there can play.”
Smith and Fuller joined Webb on the field against Army because of the Black Knights’ triple-option offense, playing a combination linebacker-safety role. This week’s opponent, UNLV, runs a more conventional offense.
How playing time will shake out this week and beyond is uncertain. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who also coaches safeties, said he isn’t sure whether he’ll stick with the rotation system.
But Smith has worked his way into the mix.
“He’s taking care of his body, his life, his academics,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s typical, maybe a guy who wasn’t that mature when he first got here has really grown up.”
The secondary has come under criticism this year, by outsiders as well as Meyer. Ohio State ranked last nationally in passing yardage allowed after the Indiana and Oklahoma games.
“When you break down the Oklahoma film,” Smith said, “almost every play from the front four to the back end, we made mistakes that added up and made it look like they out-schemed us. But we really were beating ourselves.”
Smith and his fellow defensive backs know the biggest tests are in front of them. It’s a challenge he embraces.
“It’s a blessing, man,” he said. “It’s a blessing. I’m grateful for every day to be out here.”