I got in touch with several writers on the college football blogs. I wanted to get their thoughts on the Redskins newest draft picks and ask a few more revealing questions about how these players fit on the team and their chances of making an impact either immediately or down the line. Mike Plank of Rock Chalk Talk gave us some great information regarding UDFA Fish Smithson.
Cadillactica: Could you give us your impression of what the Kansas coaches thought of Smithson? How does he take to coaching? What is his personality like? Is he a leader/team player?
Mike Plank: This highlight video opens up with Fish addressing the locker room after KU beat Texas last fall. (Yes, that’s Texas, as in, The Longhorn Network, Bevo, and lol Texas lost to Kansas in football.) Fish was voted by his teammates to be a team captain in both 2015 and 2016. In fact, it’s my understanding that of all the years that he’s played football, the only time he hasn’t been a team captain was his first year at KU.
Despite that, in this article following the winless 2015 season, he is quoted as saying, “I still feel like I can make more tackles and work on my coverage more and my leadership.” I’d say mission accomplished. One of his first tweets after signing up for Twitter was, “I love being the underdog.” So he’s got that chip on his shoulder that a lot of KU football players have. He calls himself level-headed yet confident, but he will do whatever it takes to beat you. He is relentless and determined at whatever he does.
He obviously impressed Kansas coaches with his attitude and work ethic, and I think he’ll do the same for Redskins fans. His favorite NFL player was Ed Reed, and he idolized the way Reed played and helped lead his team emotionally on the field.
Cadillactica: Could you give us a bit of a run down on the type of coverages Kansas ran? Were they simple? Complex? How do you think Smithson will adjust to more complex NFL coverages?
Mike Plank: Officially, Kansas runs a 4-2- 5 or “Nickel” base defense (You pretty much have to these days in the Big 12). However, the Jayhawks would throw various looks at offenses throughout the game, and it wasn’t uncommon for Kansas to alternate from four down linemen to three down linemen from play to play. Despite what you think you may know about Kansas, the defense was actually pretty good last year; it was just continually set up for failure by the offense. (For example, when your opponents start half of its drives in plus territory, they’re gonna score some points.) As for adjusting to NFL schemes, Fish is definitely a smart kid, walking the hill this past May to claim his undergraduate degree from KU.
For more of a breakdown, I collaborated with fellow RCT writer David for this one, and this is what he said:
He didn’t play man coverage close to the line. They did being him into the box as a run stopping specialist and he breaks down plays and tackles really well. In every interception or pass breakup I saw on film he was either: A) in one-on- one coverage deep, or B) helping the cornerback on a deep pass. This makes sense because a lot of college teams play a lot of Cover-2 man, KU included. The cornerbacks play man-to- man on the edges and the safeties are in zone coverage deep, so they can pick up a receiver who’s beaten the coverage, or get underneath a deep ball over the top to help the outside corner. That seems to be where Fish showed his strengths. That and tackling. He led the team in tackles, he has a good nose for the ball, and he can deliver a hit.
Cadillactica: A few HH readers liked Smithson a lot as a late round option. Now that he is on the team as a UDFA he has a long way to go to claim a roster spot, especially with the team drafting Montae Nicholson and Josh Harvey-Clemons. What are some areas in which Smithson could improve his game to catch the eye of coaches?
Mike Plank: I honestly don’t know much about either of the other safeties that Washington drafted, but as we talked about earlier, I think Fish should be able to impress coaches with his attitude, work ethic, and instincts. He’s got solid-enough ball skills and doesn’t shy away from contact. Coming in as a UDFA he should know that in order to make it out of fall camp, he’ll really need to put on a show and give coaches a reason to keep him over some of the other options they have, be they returning players or draft picks.
Cadillactica: Outside of the probability of covering kickoffs and punts does Smithson have any other versatile skills? For instance Coach Jay Gruden has said he likes Josh Harvey-Clemons as a dime linebacker as well as a safety. Can Smithson play multiple positions or is he more of a true FS?
Mike Plank: Fish played mostly FS at Kansas, but I would honestly expect him to top out as a special teams captain and combo safety backup. Most pre-draft scouting reports referred to “athletic limitations” so while I think he could potentially be backup at FS, I would expect him to be more of a backup SS. Even though he might be slightly undersized for that position, I think his skills are more suited for SS.
Cadillactica: What would describe as his biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Mike Plank: NFL.com said of Fish prior to the draft that his strengths are instincts and on-field awareness. This was demonstrated his junior and senior years at KU when he led the Big 12 in tackles, and in 2015, he led the NCAA in solo stops. His sophomore year of 2014, which was his first year at Kansas after arriving from Hartnell Community College, he played in all 12 games and ended up at KU’s fifth-leading tackler that year. His freshman year at Hartnell, he led their conference in solo tackles and INTs. Fish was the first Kansas defensive back to lead the team in tackles since a guy named Darrell Stuckey in 2009. Personally, I would project Fish’s ceiling in the NFL as a Darrell Stuckey-type of player – a special teams monster, and a capable backup at strong safety.
As for weaknesses, given the right strength and conditioning coaches, “athletic limitations” mentioned by various sources can be improved upon somewhat. Other reports, again such as NFL.com, mention “a substantial amount of missed and broken tackles over the last two seasons.” That doesn’t worry me, as people said the same thing about Ben Heeney, and all he did was become a starting LB for the Raiders by year two. I just hope the Redskins give him a shot because I really do think he can contribute at the NFL level.
Cadillactica: Could you sum up his play in a single word or phrase?
Mike Plank: Relentless.
Fish never gave up on a play, never coasted, and us few unfortunate souls who are Kansas fans loved him for it. As for my favorite highlights, I like this play where he catches D’Onta Foreman from behind out of the backfield (2:21 mark) and this play where he recognizes the read option, forces the QB to keep it, then drops the QB for a loss (0:59 mark).
And yes, it’s just coincidence that both of those plays are from when Kansas beat Texas in football.
With Smithson’s football IQ and awareness so highly praised as well as his leadership and work ethic, it’s a wonder why he went undrafted. I am not familiar with his play and I didn't study him during the offseason but I can extrapolate that either every team in the NFL missed on him or that his athletic limitation concerns are real. Despite whether that is the case or not there is always room for a smart player and leadership skills on an NFL roster. As a key special teams contributor and backup I agree with Mike, Smithson can carve out a solid and important role on a team. Smithson faces stiff competition and might succumb to a numbers game. DeAngelo Hall, Monte Nicholson, Deshazor Everett, Will Blackmon, Earl Wolff, and Josh Harvey-Clemons are all competing for backup safety spots and a player like Smithson will have to do a lot in training camp to prove to the coaches that he is a better player than the vets and potentially the draft picks.