Once he found a home at strong safety, the versatile senior got comfortable and he’s been a bright spot in a season that hasn’t gone the way the Bucs hoped.
Smith has turned into a playmaker. His 66 tackles are 16 more than anybody else on the team. He leads the Southern Conference with four interceptions and is a big reason ETSU is tops in the SoCon in pass defense.
“Art’s had a tremendous year,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “I think when he looks back, he will really think highly of his time here at ETSU. He’s grown up. He’s matured.”
Sanders credits ETSU secondary coach Steve Brown for building a relationship with Smith and helping his development into a team leader.
“Art’s one of the hardest working guys on the team, not only what he does on the practice field, but he studies film and he works at it,” Sanders said. “I know Coach Brown’s always talking about getting text messages from Art with questions late at night, in the morning. He’s studying. It’s amazing when you prepare how you have success on the field. Hopefully it’s a message to the rest of our football team.”
Smith was a senior in high school in Birmingham, Alabama, and was a defensive back when his team’s all-time leading rusher went down with an injury. Smith was asked to switch to running back and all he did was rush for 706 yards and nine touchdowns in four games during Clay-Chalkville’s playoff run that ended with a state championship.
ETSU recruited Smith knowing he could play several positions, and he’s spent time during the last five years — including a red-shirt season — at running back, wide receiver, kick returner and cornerback before finally settling in at safety.
Last year, after considering giving up the game, Smith was summoned to play against Mercer when Titus Tucker was ejected for targeting. He picked off two passes that afternoon helping the Bucs to an important victory that clinched a share of the Southern Conference championship.
“He just brings a lot of energy, a lot of emotion,” Bucs defensive end Nasir Player said. “A lot of people aren’t really vocal, they’re not really up front with their emotions with how they feel. He’s real passionate about playing and it carries over to the rest of the people out there.”
Smith says that passion isn’t an act. He’s all in and he wants to make sure everybody else wearing an ETSU uniform is as well.
“It’s just natural and it just shows how much I care about the game and just the people, my teammates, and coaches,” Smith said. “I’ll go a hundred all the way for them. I’d go to the grave for them. I’d go to war with them, so I really just appreciate them for just bringing that out of me.”
Player is one of Smith’s closest friends on the team — the two joined center Ben Blackmon as permanent captains for the rest of the season — and he’s glad they’re getting to spend more time together ever since Smith was moved to defense.
“It’s fun having him out there,” Player said. “When he played offense we were never really on the field together. Now that we’re on defense and we’re both starting together, I look back there and see him, I’m like, ‘That’s my boy and he has my back.’ It’s cool having him out there.”
Smith changed the momentum of several games with big hits this season, something not lost on Sanders, considering he’s 5-foot-10 and listed at 179 pounds on the roster.
“He’s a good football player and he’s not scared,” Sanders said. “It’s amazing how many guys think it’s going to hurt to hit.”
Smith said after years of getting hit as a running back and wide receiver, he’s glad to be on the other side.
“I would rather give the lick than to take one,” Smith said.
The Bucs are 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the Southern Conference heading into Saturday’s game at Western Carolina. In a season that has been mostly forgettable, Smith has put together a performance to remember.
“I’m really proud of Art for where he’s come in the short time I’ve been here,” Sanders said. “It’s good to see him have success.”