Tied for the FAU lead in sacks and second among Owls in tackles in 2017, Smith says this year’s run at a title is even more gratifying.
“This is a different thing because we’re underdogs,” Smith said. “Nobody really believed in us, losing Azeez [Al-Shaair] and losing all that, it’s placed a chip on our shoulders. Now we’re back. We just have to finish what we started.”
Al-Shaair, the Owls leader in 2017 with 147 tackles, is with the San Francisco 49ers now. This is Smith’s defense. And while he credits Al-Shaair with aiding his development, Smith also revels in what he’s accomplishing this year.
“In 2017 I played the second tier to Azeez,” Smith said. “But now it’s, like, different when you are the guy.”
Fellow linebacker, junior Keke Leroy, emphatically explains Smith’s value.
“If someone were to ask me about Rashad right now, I’d say, ‘That’s the man,’” Leroy said. “No question he is the leader. This is who I look to when I need answers. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Smith, who Leroy refers to as “Cap,” short for captain, and Leroy combine to form arguably the best two-man linebacker unit in Conference USA, leading an underrated and perhaps underapreciated FAU defense. Leroy leads the Owls with 94 tackles. Smith is right behind with 91.
They’ll have the opportunity to add to those totals on Saturday and a couple weeks later in a bowl game, too.
“Both of us have an opportunity to finish with 100 tackles,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of tackles.”
The skills of Smith and Leroy complement each other. Smith exudes a quiet confidence. Leroy is brash both on the field and in the interview room, often finishing Smith’s sentences. Smith is better in pass coverage, while Leroy attacks the passer with ferocity. Leroy consistently delivers the bigger hits, but he can’t help but smile when Smith takes the opportunity to destroy a ball carrier. Leroy credits Smith with helping him play both smarter and faster.
“I think we both play well together,” Smith said. “I feel like it’s fun playing with Keke for sure. It’s different from Azeez. Azeez, I felt like he was a step ahead of me and stuff. With me and (Leroy) I feel like we’re even. It’s just fun running sideline to sideline with each other.”
As the season began, Smith played the dominant role on defense. The senior led FAU with 11 tackles at Ohio St. Three of his FAU-record four fumble recoveries on the season came in the first three games, and the first of his two interceptions on the season came in the fourth.
As opposing offensives shifted their schemes in an attempt to nullify Smith’s impact, Leroy took advantage. He recorded double-digit tackles against Marshall, Western Kentucky and Southern Miss – three of the Owls’ most important conference games. His 7.5 sacks now lead the Owls. All three of Leroy’s interceptions came in the season’s second half. And, with 14.5 tackles for loss, he’s on the verge of breaking Trey Hendrickson’s FAU single season TFL record of 15. (Though FAU isn’t exactly known for its statistical accuracy, and the idea that Hendrickson only made 1.5 tackles for loss that season that didn’t come via sacks is difficult to believe.)
Leroy’s emergence in conference play forces an interesting dilemma on C-USA coaches when they vote for the All-Conference team, to be released on Tuesday. Vote for Leroy or Smith for one of the three first-team linebacker spots? Or both?
Leroy gives voters an out.
“I want Cap to get it,” Leroy said. “He worked hard for it. Just the fact that I learned most of my game from him I just feel like it would only be right if I see him get that.”
Of course, it’s possible that neither is rewarded with first-team status. Seven different C-USA players – including four linebackers – have more tackles than Leroy. Eight have more than Smith.
What happens if neither Smith nor Leroy garner first-team honors?
“Keke goes back to work, comes back to FAU and makes it happen next year, and I go on to my future endeavors,” Smith said.
But there’s more to accomplish before that.
As FAU prepares for Saturdy’s 1:30 p.m. kickoff against UAB at Howard Schnellenberger Field to decide the Conference USA championship, both players will know they’re ready to play when they share two words during warm-ups.
“All we say is, “Lets’ go,” Smith said. “After we do our tackling [drill] then we just lock in from there and there’s nothing left to be said.”