"A Different Attitude"

It seems as though WVU head coach Bill Stewart mentions the play of free safety Eain Smith every day at his post-practice news conferences. And while Smith enjoys the praise, he just hopes it translates to time on the field.

Indeed, while Smith has hauled in no less than three interceptions in preseason training camp (and, in his words, "dropped a lot" more) the redshirt junior does not figure to be a starter when the Mountaineers begin their season Sept. 4 against Coastal Carolina.

If anything, that is a testament to the depth at that position, something safeties coach Steve Dunlap has tried to cultivate since he returned to Morgantown prior to the 2008 season.

That depth is a good thing for coaches, but can make things tough for a player like Smith. As well as he has played this fall, odds of him to cracking the starting lineup at free safety are slim with an emerging star like Robert Sands in front of him on the depth chart.

Smith recognizes just how much things have changed since the 2008 season, when he and Sands were both in their freshman seasons (Sands was a true freshman, Smith a redshirt freshman).

The secondary had a vastly different look and didn't have much depth. Coaches were so desperate for quality defensive backs that they switched Brandon Hogan from wide receiver to cornerback in fall camp -- and Hogan quickly jumped to the top of the depth chart there despite his inexperience on defense.

Now, things have changed for the better.

"We've got great athletes on this defense," Smith said. "We can be really good. We just need to join together. We need to believe in each other and give good effort.

"We've got great athletes in the secondary, so if everybody stays healthy, I believe we can be the top in the nation."

The task for Dunlap then becomes figuring out which three safeties should be on the field at a given time -- and which responsibilities they should be tasked with on a given play.

Dunlap has ensured that all of his players can do the work of at least two of the three safety spots -- called bandit, free and spur -- used in West Virginia's unique 3-3-5 alignment.

That helps in multiple ways. It obviously provides flexibility should any one player have injury issues. But it also allows the defense to keep the same personnel groupings on the field while having those players line up in different spots, making things tougher for opposing quarterbacks trying to read the coverages.

"Every time you're on the field, you want to try to disguise," Smith explained. "You don't want to show your hand too early. So we've put a lot of emphasis on disguising and rotating. Between all of us, we can all play at least two different safety positions, so that's a really good part of our defense."

Smith, for example, primarily focuses on his duties as a free safety. But he is comfortable with the job of the spur position as well -- one he will play as part of the team's nickel (or "40") package.

It's those little wrinkles that have added a level of sophistication to the defense as the members of the secondary have gotten older and wiser in knowing what their roles are on a given play within defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's scheme.

"It's experience," Smith said. "It's big, definitely. We've learned the defense and how the coaches want us to play, and that's big. We do a lot more [in terms of coverages], and you're going to see a lot more things this year."

As a free safety, the main goal is fairly simple -- "Don't let nobody behind you," as Smith said. But doing so can be easier said than done in practice, as Smith often ends up tasked with covering speedy Mountaineer receivers like Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin.

"If you can do that, then you're good," Smith said with a laugh. "I feel like if you can cover Jock or Tavon, you can cover just about anybody."

If that is the case, then Smith may have that capability. Stewart sings the praises of Smith's play after seemingly every practice.

The Miramar, Fla., native said that is the result of "a different mindset" he had coming into training camp.

"I just feel like in training camp, I had something to prove," Smith said. "I've played with a chip on my shoulder.

"I wanted to make plays this camp. I really worked hard this summer. And I just really want to shine out and play great."

So far, so good. Smith said his confidence is at an all-time high right now, and that positive feeling translates to the field in many different ways.

"I'm a lot more sure of myself," he said. "You just play a little more loose. You bring even better coverages. Overall, your body language, you can just see it out there. It's just, overall, you just play better. It sinks in."

While a strong fall camp is almost complete for Smith, he and the rest of his teammates on the defense (a unit which the safety admitted "hasn't clicked just yet" in practice) believe they have a lot more work to do before the start of the season.

And while the safety has made a name for himself on the practice field in the last two weeks, he knows he has to play at the same high level if he hopes to duplicate that in game situations.

"We really don't think about it like [camp is over]," Smith said. "The first game is another [two] weeks, and we have so many practices left and have to get better."


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