CLEMSON — Even the number change looked strange to Robert Smith.
What: No. 9 Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) at Virginia (2-6, 0-4)
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
He spent his whole youth and high school years with the ball in his hands, garnering all-state honors as Woodland’s four-year quarterback.
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When it became readily apparent his college future wouldn’t allow him to stay at the position — “the reality was I was too short,” the 5-foot-11 Smith admitted — he decided to give safety a go, despite extremely limited experience on defense.
“I felt like I could have played it, but if I had any aspirations of playing at the next level, then I knew what I had to do, and it wasn’t going to be playing at quarterback,” Smith said. “I knew I was athletic enough to move to a different position.”
Clemson was the only major college to extend Smith an offer, and he spent his first two years as a backup to Rashard Hall. Smith was promoted to first-team strong safety in the spring, and he’s responded as a durable, dependable starter.
Only linebacker Stephone Anthony has played more snaps on defense than Smith, and Smith’s 47 tackles ranks him third among the Tigers, behind Anthony and fellow linebacker Spencer Shuey.
“I’ve seen an incredible level of confidence. That’s really been his biggest thing,” junior cornerback Martin Jenkins said. “Him coming into the season knowing he was going to have a big role, he’s just been an incredible leader.”
Smith only remembers playing “maybe 40, 50 snaps” on defense his entire high school career. But he also had a knack for picking interceptions in those few defensive plays.
“That was just going off pure instincts,” Smith said. “But my whole life, I always played quarterback. I never played any other position.”
Which is why the move to safety was jarring, more so mentally than physically.
“At first, it was definitely hard. That was my love. When people knew me, they were like, it’s Robert the quarterback,” Smith said. “I went from 15 to 27; when you think of 27, you think of a running back or defensive back. Now it was Robert the safety.”
Smith had an interception in his first career game, the 2011 season opener against Troy. But going from a guy who amassed more than 11,000 total yards as the man at Woodland to a mere special-teamer in college from 2011-12 required patience.
“Especially midway through my sophomore year, that was gone. Once that happened, I was cool and I kept rolling with it,” Smith said. “I like safety. It’s good to give hits instead of receiving them. Nothing better in the outfield than getting interceptions.”
Smith made his second career interception last Saturday at Maryland.
Although the St. George native’s role hasn’t been to be around the ball, he relies on that hefty experience as a field general to help him mess with opposing quarterbacks’ reads.
“The biggest thing for me was to actually convert my mind about defense,” Smith said. “At quarterback, or on offense, it’s way different. You’ve got to start thinking about down and distance, or look at formations. Once you get it, I really think my quarterback days in high school are really helping me right now.”
Playing in a wide-open attack in high school, and against it every day in Clemson’s practices, has simplified the daily adjustment.
“Especially with a lot of spread offenses going on right now. We ran a pretty complex offense at Woodland, I’m glad I made the transition,” Smith said.
While Smith has been the every-down player at strong safety, there’s been a rotation next to him between sophomore Travis Blanks and freshman Jayron Kearse.
Smith and Blanks usher together in church, and watch film together. They’ve done so since they were the primary backups last fall, knowing they were slated to start in 2013.
“If you ask Travis, we have a very special chemistry between each other,” Smith said. “When you play with somebody so much, you can look at each other and understand what needs to get done. I can look at him, he can look at me and I know what he’s thinking.”