It didn’t take long for Rice Football safety Naeem Smith to earn his place at South Main, easily earning the title of 2019 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
2019 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Naeem Smith is what Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren likes to call one of his needles in a haystack. No, the moniker has nothing to do with the locale of Smith’s previous football team in Iowa. It references the transition from the team Smith once played for to the blue and gray uniform he wore at South Main this season.
Smith spent 2018 as a member of the Ellsworth Community College football team, a junior college tucked away in Iowa Falls, IA. There are thousands and thousands of JUCO athletes long for the opportunity to play at the next level. The best make the jump. The top JUCO prospect in Smith’s class, Jermaine Johnson, signed with Georgia. Other top junior college athletes ended up at Texas A&M, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee and Texas.
The list of junior college players who enrolled at high-caliber academic institutions like Rice, Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt or Duke is much shorter, almost nonexistent. Finding a JUCO product with the talent level to play D1 football and the grades to get into Rice is almost impossible. Almost.
Enter Smith. Alongside fellow JUCO products Brad Rozner and Blaze Alldredge, Smith represents some of the most remarkable recruiting work the current staff has done. Not only did Smith leap the academic hurdles, he passed the on-field challenges with flying colors.
Smith enrolled early and was on campus for spring ball. It was there he began the process of assimilating into a defensive scheme flush with complexities. At that time, Rice football had incumbent starters at the safety spot. George Nyakwol was one of the few veteran defensive backs that had retained his starting job through the coaching transition. Prudy Calderon, dubbed the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year by The Roost, had emerged beside him. There was no rush to get Smith onto the field. Smith had other plans.
To some extent, Smith spoke his own future at Rice into existence. “We have one goal, and that’s to get better each day,” he said prior to his first game at South Main. That mission, to always improve, has paid it’s dividends.
Calderon started the first game. Smith started the remaining 11. It wasn’t so much that Calderon’s production had slipped — he was the same centerfielder-type safety that led the team in interceptions last season — Smith was just better.
Smith is a dual-threat asset. He’s as comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage as he is in the back of the secondary. He moved downhill fast, engaging blockers and ballcarriers with a fury that few expected from the 5-foot-11-inch dynamo.
Like Calderon the year prior, Smith led the team in interceptions (tied with fellow defensive back Treshawn Chamberlain). He tacked on 50 tackles, fifth-most on the team, 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack. He also forced a fumble and had three pass break ups. Smith gave the secondary an edge, propelling everyone lined up with him to play to their absolute best.
Smith and the secondary capped off their season with a near-perfect outing against preseason Conference USA Player of the Year Mason Fine on Senior Day. The North Texas quarterback was held without a touchdown pass, in a game in which he attempted at least 15 passes, for the first time since Sep. 16, 2017 at Iowa. Nobody keeps Fine out of the endzone, but Rice football did. And Smith was a crucial piece to that puzzle.
As dominant as he felt he and the secondary had played, Smith still wanted more. “I really wish we would have gotten a shutout,” he said, a perfect snapshot of his laser focus. It’s also a sign that 2019 could be the beginning of a very special career. Smith is already one of the best defenders Rice football has, and he’s on a mission to get even better.
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