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SDSU junior cornerback Ron Smith SDSU junior cornerback Ron Smith

For Ron Smith, There’s Always New Challenges

Ron Smith is a junior cornerback who already has earned his undergraduate degree.
By Mick McGrane, Senior Writer

“I want to go on and get my doctorate and become a sports psychologist. After football, whenever that may be, I definitely still want to be able to help athletes and help the game in any way I can.”

Ron Smith needs a hobby. Sleeping comes to mind. Staring into the abyss of nothingness, or perhaps deep breathing exercises where obligations and restlessness simply float away.

But Smith can't rest. His is a world of wonder, of peeking around corners to discover the next challenge, of welcoming others' pessimism and pouncing on the opportunity to prove them wrong.

While the term "student-athlete" is often called into question, with cynics snickering at the very thought, Smith is the definition, the living example, the reason why Aztecs head coach Rocky Long has been known to say, "We've weeded out the knuckleheads."

Suddenly the elder statesman among SDSU's cornerbacks, Smith is but a junior. Nonetheless, he also is a junior who already has earned his undergraduate degree, one who will soon begin work on a master's with an emphasis in counseling. Then, with presumably an hour off for lunch, begin work on his doctorate.

He is learning Japanese. He is refining his chops on the saxophone, a pastime he parted with in elementary school, when he also played the clarinet. He was a Malik Award winner at SDSU for the fall of 2017, which goes out to those student-athletes who posted a 4.00 GPA in the fall or spring semester. He has also been named a Mountain West scholar-athlete and has been named to the league's Fall All-Academic Team each of the past two years.   

Is there life beyond football? Where Smith is concerned, it's an expanse as far as the eye can see.

"For me, knowledge, just being able to learn as much as I can about anything, makes me a better person," he said. "I think it allows you to pick and choose while learning as much as you can about the world and about life. I'm always looking for different things that I can surround myself with. I feel like it helps build me as a person."

READ: 12 SDSU Student-Athletes Honored for Academic Excellence and Service

Whatever it is that Aztec coaches are looking for in cornerbacks, it clearly includes character of the highest order. Having sat through an interview with former SDSU and current Dallas Cowboys cornerback Kameron Kelly a year ago, I felt as though I'd just walked away from a sermon on life with a smattering of football tossed in for good measure. He talked about the inability to put a price tag on an education, about the importance of helping others, about being part of a program that frowns on arrogance and one that he hoped would one day be embraced by all San Diegans, particularly children.

Closing my notebook, I wasn't sure whether to shake Kelly's hand or applaud.

Not surprisingly, Smith was influenced by Kelly. Both arrived at SDSU as safeties. While Smith was quickly moved to corner, Kelly was a safety his entire career before making the transition to corner last season. They were roommates at the team hotel on nights before games, with Kelly summing up Smith's talent without ever being prompted.

"Ron is a really smart guy, and that's really the way he earned playing time," Kelly said. "He may not be the biggest guy (6-feet), but he's always in the right position at the right time. He knows how to read plays and he doesn't make mental mistakes."

Not many, at least, although Smith readily admits his Japanese could use some work.

"Football starts to consume your mind. I've been basically watching film every single day, trying to lock in and hopefully accomplish even more this year."

Appropriately, Smith's coming-out party was staged in Las Vegas, as a redshirt freshman. In the Las Vegas Bowl against Houston, he amassed a career-high 10 tackles (seven solo) and returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown. He was named to the 2016-17 Associated Press and Athlon Sports all-bowl teams before putting together a sophomore season in which he broke up 16 passes, the most by an SDSU player since Marlon Andrews (22) in 1990.

Smith, whose 19 consecutive starts rank first among active Aztec defensive players, says he owes a substantial debt of gratitude to former Aztec and current Atlanta Falcons cornerback Damontae Kazee.

"It was definitely Damontae who had the most impact on me at first, because I wanted to emulate his game so much," he said. "He just did a whole bunch of things that I found so crazy. His speed, his acceleration, his knack of always being around the football. I wanted to be able to do those same kind of things. Then, when I was put into a starting role two years ago, I would ask him questions all the time, just trying to figure out what I could do better to help the team. He definitely helped me become more comfortable.

"Then, last year, with Kam, he was also a guy who had played a long time, even though he had been a safety before moving to corner. But his leadership really rubbed off on me. I was able to talk to him about a lot of different things. I really grew close to him and asked for a lot of advice."

Now it's Smith who finds himself in the position of passing down wisdom. At the opposite corner in 2018 are junior Kyree Woods, who played in seven games last season but has yet to start a game, and redshirt freshman Darren Hall. The latter played in two games as a true freshman in 2017 before redshirting due to injury.

"It's really odd, because I don't feel like the old guy," said Smith, who ranks third among active SDSU players with 119 total tackles. "Before I came in, we had a lot of older corners. You could just feel their presence of being guys who had been in the room for a long time. Now you look at us and our oldest corner is a junior. I'm an old guy in theory, but it doesn't feel like it yet. I'm just trying to lead as best I can.

"I know there's always something I can be better at. Even now, watching film from spring ball, I can see the little things that I need to improve on. When it becomes second nature, that'll be great, but right now I'm still learning, improving my technique and making sure that I'm making the right decisions with everything I do. Then, once the season actually starts, I can feel comfortable that I know what I'm doing so that I can just go out there and play and not think about it at all."

Which is a far cry from his introduction to Long's 3-3-5 scheme after his arrival from St. Mary's High in Oakland. Making a mistake as a cornerback at SDSU is to learn that help will seldom be forthcoming.

"At first, it was definitely more of a, 'Wow, there's a lot more space out here.' Let's say you're in a Cover Zero defense and you're lining up a receiver who's split wide on the wide side of the field and you look back and realize there's no help behind you. That's when you know that you're really on an island. But now that I've gotten more experience, I've been able to sit, learn how to improve my technique. I've definitely become more confident. Now when I see that it's just me against you, I have a lot more confidence that I can go make a play."

And make a difference.

"I want to go on and get my doctorate and become a sports psychologist," he said. "After football, whenever that may be, I definitely still want to be able to help athletes and help the game in any way I can."

And what might he tell the Aztecs as a sports psychologist in 2018?

"I would tell them that all of you need to keep your high energy, but be able to control your nerves," he said. "We have a lot of young talent on this team. The experience may be lacking in a lot of areas, but where experience may be lacking, there is also the excitement that comes with youth, that energy to want to win. We have a lot of guys who are super athletic and super talented, and now they just need that platform to show it.

"I feel like this is the year that we're really going to be able to see all of this talent shine, especially because of all of the work they've been putting in. It's their time now."

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