Defense is much easier when a team has a cornerback that can eliminate the opposing team's best pass catcher. The term is "shutdown" corner. They are hard to find. NFL teams pay big bucks for defensive backs that can slow down today's high-powered offenses. WIth seemingly every rule change favoring the offense, corners have to rely on technique and skill more than ever. "Handsy" corners get penalized.
North Dakota State has that guy. In fact, they've had a shutdown corner for the last five and a half seasons. That player is senior CJ Smith. Smith, from Savage, Minnesota has taken over the role of number one cornerback from another Bison Twin Cities legend, Marcus Williams. Williams is now playing for the New York Jets, and is among the NFL leaders in interceptions.
Having never played defense in high school, Smith credits Williams for much of his success. "I learned the game from Marcus. I didn't play defense in high school, so a lot of the things I know, he and J-Rich (John Richardson) taught me. Basic principles, and the little things that I’ll need to know for my whole career" explained Smith.
Smith and Williams were able to play together on the 2013 defense, a unit many consider to be the greatest in Bison history. Smith was a sophomore during that 15-0 year, and was pressed into "number one" corner duties on more than one occasion. Williams missed two starts and parts of two other games with injuries during his senior year.
"They had a lot of confidence in me during in 2013 when I was playing alongside Marcus. He was hurt for a little while, and I had to be the number one corner then."
After Williams' graduation, the number one corner role was Smith's for the next two seasons. "Going into the 2014 season, the coaches expressed to me that I needed to step up my level of play that year" said Smith. Smith was an All Conference honorable mention as a sophomore, and followed that up by playing at a high level all season long. Smith broke up 17 passes in 2014 and grabbed an interception against South Dakota.
Watching Williams and Smith on film, it becomes apparent that both players are effective, but in very different ways. Marcus was a playmaker, even a gambler at times. He set the school record for interceptions (21), and the FCS record for interceptions returned for a touchdown. Those kind of big plays bring plenty of notoriety.
Smith goes about his business a little more quietly. With just six interceptions in 53 career games, Smith doesn't exhibit the same ball skills that Marcus WIlliams did. With that said, Smith is a phenomenal player. Opposing quarterbacks often don't even challenge him. The reason is simple: the receiver he covers isn't open. Smith also exhibits a special knack for breaking up passes. He was 4th in the MVFC a year ago on a per-game basis and is second in the conference in 2015.
Marcus Williams' number one ability was to take the ball away (and often score). Smith's top skill is taking away the opponent's top receiver. The Bison have faced four of the top five receivers in the Valley (rec yds. per game): Jake Weineke of SDSU, Lance Lenoir of WIU, Billy Reed of SIU and Gary Owens of Indiana State.
Those receivers averaged 2.75 receptions and 40 yards per game against North Dakota State. They combined for one receiving touchdown. That was Lenoir, and it happened when his Leathernecks where down 45-0. Smith and the Bison pass defense have repeatedly forced offenses away from their primary pass catcher. "It depends on who we play week to week. Sometimes following guys, sometimes playing boundary. It depends on the game plan," said Smith.
Its possible Smith's value to the team was made clear in the Bison loss to Montana to start the season. Smith tore his meniscus during spring practice and was not able to play in the opener against the Grizzlies on ESPN. The Bison gave up an uncharacteristic 434 yards through the air. Nickel back Jordan Champion, forced to play outside, struggled against the taller Montana receivers. It was clear that NDSU missed their number one corner.
"It was one of the hardest times I've had to face in my life. Sitting out the whole summer, missing the first game of my senior year. Montana is a great atmosphere, and obviously we didn't get the 'W'" explained Smith.
The Bison defense has been a different unit since his return. North Dakota State has been the best defense in the country since losing to the 'Yotes and losing their star quarterback Carson Wentz. Smith credits the leaders of the team for the renewed focus: "We stepped up our intensity. We came out flat against South Dakota. We've realized that just wearing the green and gold doesn't allow us to win every game."
The media loves to recognize cornerbacks that create turnovers. That's why Marcus Williams was a three time All Conference and two-time All American player. There probably isn't enough respect given to corners that take away primary targets. Smith is playing at an All American level. Isn't that what a "shutdown" corner is?