Oct. 11, 2013
Auburn's Ryan Smith, left, celebrates his interception against Ole Miss with teammate Quan Bray (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. – Ryan Smith was remembering last season. Started the first game and had 12 tackles. Got in a few plays against LSU in Game No. 4. Didn't play again until Game No. 11. And then started the final game against Alabama and led the team in tackles to close out his most confusing season.
"I don't know what to say to that," said someone trying to understand.
"I don't know, either," said Ryan Smith.
The Auburn senior safety is back playing, for real this time, after being rescued by Auburn's new coaching staff. He's fifth on the team in tackles, has forced a fumble, intercepted a pass against Ole Miss last week and says this year's defense will carry energy into Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Western Carolina.
He's part of a defense that has intercepted six passes after intercepting just two the year before.
"The chemistry is a lot better. Everybody is playing together, and, right now, all our goals are in front of us," Smith says.
Smith had his moments before leading the team in tackles against Clemson in last year's opener. He's the guy who stopped Mississippi State's Chris Relf at the goal line as time expired to preserve Auburn's 41-34 victory in 2011. He won the starting job for next season. Then, he watched.
"I don't know what happened. I'll leave that up to the coaches. Last year was last year," he said.
Then in came head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and everything changed.
"It was just a fresh start for the team as a whole bringing in Coach Malzahn," Smith said. "That brought a confidence level for us as a team. We knew he'd come in with the mindset that all he wanted to do was win. It was big for us as a team."
And Smith's secondary. Johnson 4-2-5 scheme is loaded with defensive backs.
"We didn't know too much about him, but we knew what he did at South Carolina running that defense," Smith said. "We just knew that it would be a lot on the secondary with five defensive backs on the field at all times, so we knew the secondary would really get a chance to really run the defense like we knew we could."
Last year? Don't ask. Only one of Auburn's two interceptions came from a defensive back.
"It really wasn't too much to say last year," Smith said. "We just tried to stay positive. We just tried to perfect our craft, and not really think about it. If you thought about it, it would just bother you real bad."
Now, the missing interceptions are coming.
"It's an all-around defensive thing… the D-line getting more pressure, playing tighter coverage, different schemes and just playing hard, and being in a position to make a play."
Smith credits a more aggressive defensive line for the bump in interceptions.
"It feels good when you're covering a receiver and you hear the fans going crazy because you know the D-line has caused some havoc," Smith said. "When we're covering a receiver, we may have our back toward the D-line and the quarterback, but we can tell when there's a sack."
Offenses have had their day across the SEC this year, but Smith is an old-school player when it comes to defense.
"A lot of teams are choosing to run the fast-paced offense, but I feel like the SEC always prides itself having great defenses, and you won't win in this league if you can't stop the run," he said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine