There may have been an underlying blessing to come from the knee injury that wiped out most of Christian Smith’s junior season.
“In the spring, the coaches didn’t want me doing much pounding,” Smith said of the recovery process. “I was doing all drops in the spring.”
A new position was born.
Smith has transitioned from end to Leo, a hybrid position beginning to gain attention in what appears to be an improved University of Toledo defense. He is sometimes a pass rusher, sometimes a coverage man. He always is a pain to quarterbacks wondering what the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Smith will do.
Don’t be alarmed if you see Smith or starter Jayrone Elliott lumbering 15 yards down the field to make a play today in a Mid-American Conference opener at Central Michigan.
“They’re both talented enough where they can drop into coverage,” coach Matt Campbell said. “They can create mismatches on the perimeter and yet you can still bring them different ways and in different situations.”
Identifying the whereabouts of Smith and Elliott has surely been discussed this week by Central Michigan coaches and redshirt freshman quarterback Cooper Rush. Rush will make his second start on an offense averaging just 18 points as it tries to overcome injuries at quarterback, running back, and left tackle.
The defense CMU will face has played well, at least by the middling standard established over the last decade. Toledo forced eight straight stops in last week’s 33-21 win over Eastern Washington and limited the Eagles to 377 yards. A pair of seniors adept at rushing the passer and blanketing receivers contributed to the effort.
Smith made a tackle on the edge in the first half, prompting onlookers to scramble for a roster to verify the No. 9 jersey they saw 10 yards from the line of scrimmage was actually Smith.
“It can be kind of difficult at times because you don’t know who is blitzing or dropping into coverage,” Elliott said. “That’s good from a defensive standpoint.”
The Leo position never took flight a year ago in the first season under coordinator Tom Matukewicz. T.J. Fatinikun played the position some, but coaches scrapped those pages from the playbook after Fatinikun went down for the year in game five. Moving Smith to the position was not an option, as he also suffered a season-ending injury the same game.
Now the staff has flexibility. Smith and Elliott can be on the field at the same time, with one dropping into coverage and the other pursuing the quarterback. Or maybe they both will rush, with one perhaps feigning coverage. The element of uncertainty has enabled Elliott to record a sack in all three games.
“I can’t even really explain it,” Elliott said. “There’s a lot that’s going on.”
Elliott (6-3, 240) said the most difficult part of the transition has been tackling in space.
“It was rough at first, but it’s getting simpler as I get more reps,” he said.
The implementation of the position was a result of a popular Campbell tenant. Whether on defense or on offense, the coach wants to identify his best 11 players, find formations conducive to their strengths, and then call plays putting those players in positions to succeed.
“"We studied different people this winter and spring,” Campbell said. “We really felt like there was some ability for us to make a change for the positive.”