Two players who butted heads all spring were sophomores Eain Smith and Robert Sands, who split time at the free safety position last year. Smith, a redshirt, and Sands, a true freshman, both had ups and downs at the position, and entered the spring with designs on earning the starting job.
Some of the head-to-head competition was blunted with Sands got considerable time at the bandit position, and it looked as if each might have earned a tentative starting position. However, head coach Bill Stewart's post spring depth chart again shows the pair fighting for the free safety position, with Sands holding the edge at the moment.
Of course, the only thing less tentative than a post-spring depth chart is one of the pre-spring variety, so the chart shared by Stewart certainly isn't set in stone. Sands could still move down at times, or even permanently, depending on the performance of other players. However, the chart does seem to set up another face-off between the talented sophs this fall. The good thing, however, is that it isn't one of the ugly variety.
"It‘s not really battling," Smith said of the competition. "We help each other as much as we can. It's fun. We both get in (the game) so we're not really complaining." Sands agreed.
Smith does admit to a bit of jealousy of the advantages that Sands has when he is at bandit. Smith would like to be able to be a part of more blitzing – something that's far more comment from a strong safety position than from the free, which is the last line of defense, and thus not given to risky play. However, in some situations, especially in third down and SWAT packages, Smith gets to unleash his pass rush moves.
"I do (blitz) from time to time," said Smith. "They switch me about sometimes during third downs so I get some of that too. We both get to do the same thing."
As a free safety last season, Smith saw substantial numbers, playing in every game and starting four. He had 38 tackles, with a season high six against East Carolina. Sands was right behind with 33 stops and a big forced fumble against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Both hope to add more consistency, and tighter pass defense, to their games this year.
With man-to-man coverage a priority during the spring, Smith is pleased with the way it has helped him improve on his perception. "It's helped me better with my eyes and distance," said Smith. "It's helped more with that than my reaction. It's helped me a lot. You have to be more disciplined. It's way more difficult than zone (coverage.)"
During the defense dominated spring, Coach Stewart was very complimentary of the defensive back, and Smith was just as pleased with the defensive effort.
"(The defense) knew what we had to do this season," said Smith. "We're getting better every practice but we're not where we need to be yet."