Following the 2011 season, senior Gene Robinson was penciled in as the starter at free safety for this fall. However, with the introduction of the 4-2-5 defense by co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Vic Koenning came a new position known as the Ram. Robinson quickly filled the new role, a hybrid nickel back of sorts, leaving the free safety spot up for grabs.
With little depth at free safety due to Robinson’s position change and the graduation of Matt Merletti and Jonathan Smith, Smiley and Rankin, both red-shirt freshmen, were given opportunities to take the job. At the moment, Smiley is receiving the majority of time with the first team defense, but Rankin practices with the starters as well.
“The competition is rough,” Rankin told InsideCarolina.com on Friday. “We’re competing each and every day to try and get the position. We talk a little smack to each other, but it’s all competitive.”
Free safety is Smiley’s third different position in three years. He played quarterback as a senior at Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines and made the switch to cornerback as a true freshman last fall only to be reassigned to safety in the spring.
“I had to learn from high school switching from quarterback to [defensive back],” Smiley said. “I had to learn the skills, how to backpedal, my technique. I had to get everything right.
“At corner, you’re not very free. As safety, you’re free. You get to read the quarterback. When the ball is in the air you can see it before the corners do.”
The quick learning curve by Smiley has impressed many of his teammates, including wide receiver Jhay Boyd, who said Smiley has “stuck out” this spring due to his speed.
Not lost in the discussion is Rankin, who not only works with the starters, but also practices at both the free and strong safety positions with the second team. The Salisbury, N.C. native does not prefer one position to the other and he understands the need to learn both spots. With little depth at safety, one injury to the likes of starting strong safety Tre Boston could force Rankin or Smiley to play either safety position.
“It’s not really a difference - it’s just the style of play,” Rankin explained. “Sometimes the [strong] safety comes down on a tight end rather as a free safety will come down on a receiver or something like that.”
Not only must the duo prepare for significant playing time for the first time in their careers, but they must also embrace and learn the new defensive scheme. With five defensive backs, the 4-2-5 defense allows for more freedom in the secondary. However, the primary goal of the unique system is to make reading the defense complicated and frustrating for the opposing offense.
“It is confusing, because we move a lot,” Smiley told reporters Thursday. “We’re a short cover-two, then it’ll be another thing. The quarterback never knows and we set up as the same coverage, but you never know what we’re doing.”
Training camp comes to a close on Monday without an unquestioned starting free safety in place. While the uncertainty may worry some, the starter will emerge when the time is right. In the meantime, the competition between Smiley and Rankin only serves to raise their level of play.
“I wish we could have competition at every single position and that’s a good thing, because they’re battling,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “Each of them wants that job, so that makes each one of them better. They’re both fighting for it and the other one is trying to out do the other one, so that’s a good thing. If you can have that kind of competition at every position, then you’ve got a chance.”
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