Prudy Calderon and Naeem Smith hope to start for the Owls at strong safety next season. No matter what happens, the Owls’ secondary will be in good hands.
The duel between incumbent Prudy Calderon and JUCO transfer Naeem Smith for the starting strong safety position could be the most heavily contested position battle at Rice during fall camp. Yet, when discussing the battles to watch last week, the safety position wasn’t mentioned — and there was reason for that.
Although only one player can be listed as the starter on an official depth chart, Rice will utilize both players heavily this season. Competitors on the practice field, these teammates understand what they have to offer the Owls’ defense and are working hard to improve wherever they can.
The new kid on the block
“Prudy and I, we’ve made each other better,” Smith remarked following Saturday’s scrimmage in which he registered the defense’s only interception of the day. “We have one goal, to get better each day, and I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”
Smith’s takeaway was indicative of that growth. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith praised Naeem, saying he “brings a physical presence to the defense.” Athletically, Smith fits more as a run-stopper. He’s the kind of player who attacks the football and moves sideline to sideline with intensity and power. That skill set has been evident since he arrived in the spring.
In 12 games at Ellsworth Community College last season, Smith registered six tackles for a loss. That mark would have put him second only to the Owls’ Anthony Ekpe’s 6.5 tackles for a loss in 2018.
Calderon has taken notice and admires that facet of Smith’s game. “He has a high motor. I see him on film and from play one to play 50 he’s the same speed, just running to the ball, flying downhill, doing something. That that kid is really talented.”
The returning starter
In many ways, Calderon serves as an excellent complement to Smith. Calderon won the job midway through the 2018 season. He quickly became the team’s deep cover man and pass defending leader. He led the team with four interceptions and seven pass deflections, showing veteran savvy as he made play after play on balls in the air.
As good as he was last season, Calderon has taken a page out of Smith’s book over the past several months. “I played the ball in the pass game pretty well [last season],” he said, “I think what I didn’t really showcase was my physicality and coming down the road game. And that’s one thing I want to do [this year].”
More: Read detailed profiles on Smith and Calderon in our 2019 Rice Football Season Preview
In many ways, it could be that simple. Rice has two extremely talented players who happen to both play the same position.
With George Nyakwol manning the free safety spot and Treshawn Chamberlain holding down the fort and the viper position, there are only so many snaps to go around. That presents a puzzle for Coach Smith to work through, but it’s a good problem to have.
“As a defense,” Calderon remarked, “our chemistry is through the roof.” Both players know that whoever wins the starting job is going to play a lot this year. Whoever “loses” is going to see plenty of the field as well. No matter who’s name is written at the top of the depth chart on a given day, neither appears intimidated or overly concerned.
The path forward
Smith is taking it all in too. “That’s one thing I’ve learned from being at a junior college, nothing is ever handed to you. So, that’s something that we gotta realize and take full advantage of. Every opportunity we step on the field, you got to make the most of it.”
So far, Smith has done just that. Calderon was honored as the team’s best freshman during the offseason. For Smith, getting to South Main in the first place represents a significant achievement. Starter or not, both Smith and Calderon will be important pieces for Rice in 2019.
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