For those who don’t follow Mountain West Conference football, you might be seeing the name Derron Smith a lot in various national media outlets and wondering who this is.
The Fresno State safety is the top senior prospect for the 2015 NFL draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.
Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Fresno State safety Derron Smith as the #1 senior safety for the 2015 NFL Draft. http://t.co/BGNcOYC3VU
— Bulldog Bounce (@BulldogBornBred) June 12, 2014
Smith is also a preseason 3rd Team All-American per both Phil Steele and Athlon.
According to former Bulldogs quarterback and 2014 NFL draftee Derek Carr, Derron Smith is leader of best secondaries in college football.
“I’ve played against a lot of good defenses: I’ve played Oregon, I’ve played Nebraska, Boise [State] is always sound defensively. These guys [the Fresno State defenders] disguise coverages like an NFL team,” Carr said. “In my career here, [Smith] picked me off more than anybody.”
That’s just something the senior safety does.
Smith picked off six passes in 2012 for the nation’s No. 3 team intercepting defense. Last season, Smith finished tied for the second-most interceptions in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision, improving his production to seven en route to Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“Get the ball back: That’s our main focus,” Smith told me at last summer’s Mountain West media day. “If we get the ball back to our offense, with how potent our offense is, that’s how we get Ws.”
Head coach Tim DeRuyter was hired in 2012 in part to turn the Bulldogs’ defense around. In 2011, Fresno State was one of the most porous defensive squads in the nation. The defensive-minded DeRuyter and coordinator Nick Toth instilled a philosophy predicated on aggression, and no Bulldog embodies it more than Derron Smith.
He capped his stellar 2013 with a pick-six of USC quarterback Cody Kessler in the Las Vegas Bowl.
That play was a decided highlight for an otherwise forgettable postseason, but also something of a building block for Smith and the Bulldogs headed into 2014. Fresno State opens at USC to once again face Kessler. The redshirt junior is working with a revamped receiving corps that features its own preseason All-American, junior Nelson Agholor.
Kessler had his best individual performance of 2013 against Fresno State, Smith’s pick-six notwithstanding. He threw for four touchdowns and 345 yards, ostensibly setting the tone for beating out ballyhooed freshman Max Browne to retain the starting job this spring.
Kessler will almost assuredly throw more in the coming season. New head coach Steve Sarkisian is introducing a hurry-up, no-huddle system, much like the offense Fresno State sees every day in practice. Toth’s bunch needs ever rep it can get in the build-up to that Week 1 contest.
With Carr headed to the NFL and the dynamic receiving tandem of Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse gone with him, Fresno State’s strength arguably lies in its defense in the early phases of 2014.
For those familiar with the Bulldogs of 2013, that may raise eyebrows. Fresno State gave up 40-plus points four times, including a combined 107 points in its stretch of two losses in the final three games against San Jose State and USC.
However, Smith is one of two key starters returning to power a defense with eight total starters back in the fold. Ejiro Ederaine is one of the top blitzing linebackers in the nation, let alone the Mountain West. His ability to harass opposing quarterbacks directly feeds Smith and the secondary’s ability to generate turnovers.
And make no mistake: Smith will generate turnovers. As his interceptions continue to pile up, so too will the accolades. Even if you don’t follow the Mountain West or Fresno State, know you’ll certainly hear his name again–even if it’s not until next spring and the NFL draft.