Stepping Up

Senior Justin Smith is coming off his best performance as a four-year member of the Ole Miss football team.

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In a 27-13 loss to his homestate Georgia Bulldogs, Smith did his part as the 6-foot-3, 298-pound defensive tackle from Alpharetta started for the fourth straight game in 2011.

"I'm happy. I'm happy to be a starter," said Smith, who had six tackles, including three solos, as well as a tackle for loss and an assist on a quarterback sack last Saturday. "I always feel I can improve and get better. I just want to play at a high level and win in my last year in college."

Smith, who played in the last seven games in 2010 for the Rebels and earned a second letter, said he believes his time is now.

"I definitely feel like I'm peaking at the right time," said the Chattahoochee High School product. "This is my fourth year. Hopefully I can just continue to play at a high level."

It's the same thing he hopes for the Rebel defense, which has through four games shown signs of being better than last season's porous outfit.

"I think we've improved a lot from last year," said Smith, who had five tackles including three solos against Southern Illinois earlier this season, a 42-24 Ole Miss victory. "There's a few things we want to get better at, like giving up explosion plays. For the most part we've been pleased, and our coaches have been pleased.

Justin Smith
File Photo

"But we're never satisfied and we want to keep building on it," he stated, emphatically. "By the end of the season we want to be a shutout defense."

Smith said he can sense the improvement as the season continues to move ahead, now into October at Fresno State Saturday night.

"We're getting better every week," he said. "We've got a lot of young guys, and they're all stepping up. They're ready to play. There's a lot of competition, and that makes us all play better.

"One day if you don't live up to what you're expected to do, you could be on the second team. It's just better that there's competition. It keeps everyone playing at a high level."

Smith admits times are tough. The Rebels, who had hope for the season of 2011 despite preseason prognostications that picked them among the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference, are a team that believes one win can turn things back around.

"We just need to stick together and stay positive," Smith said as the 1-3 Rebels face the 2-2 Bulldogs on ESPN2. "I think we're very close to getting that first Division I win. Just stay positive, stay together, and still believe in one another. I think that's the biggest thing. Don't get down on ourselves because we've struggled."

Smith said he isn't sure a change of scenery two time zones away will necessarily help the Rebels, but he all but says it can't help.

"I definitely hope so," he said. "We try to prepare the same way every week. It's going to be a great atmosphere over there. They're really excited because this is the first time an SEC school has gone to Fresno.

"Any crowd, whether it's a home or away crowd, if it's an excited crowd, it's going to excite the players," Smith concluded. "It's a later game, so that'll be nice. We'll get to rest some during the day, go out and play that night, and hopefully get a win."

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