Ready to Answer Opportunity's Knock

IRVING, Tex. - There are certain college football programs that like to stake a claim to some sort of ownership over a particular position.

USC long ago adopted the moniker of "Running Back U" long before Reggie Bush joined the list of Trojan ball carriers to win the Heisman Trophy. Maryland and Miami each have claimed to be "Quarterback U," while Penn State and Texas A&M supporters both like to refer to their teams as "Linebacker U."

So is it premature to refer to the University of Cincinnati as "Defensive Back U"?

Probably … but according to rookie Dallas safety/cornerback DeAngelo Smith, the Bearcats are developing an enormous sense of pride in their defensive backs who get drafted by NFL teams. Last year, the Baltimore Ravens selected safety Haruki Nakamura, and in April's 2009 draft, the Green Bay Packers chose cornerback Brandon Underwood, while the Cowboys plucked Smith and cornerback Mike Mickens.

"We just get after it — we challenge each other," Smith said of the philosophy of UC defensive backs. "Like Haruki (Nakamura) last year … they didn't think he could play, but he ended up turning out well. It's like a DB fraternity. Now we've just got to keep it going, and not let there be a dropoff.

"It was a competition on the field. You know — getting interceptions … if you drop them, you've got to do 10 push-ups. We just made everything we did a competition. We all knew we was competing to try to get drafted higher than the other, but at the end of the day, we've all got to compete. You can get cut being a second-rounder or a third-rounder, so it really don't matter — you've just got to come in and compete. (The Cincinnati) coaches emphasize ‘if you're going to make an interception, do something with the ball.' You've got to get to the end zone, and that's what we did."

That Dallas chose Smith in the fifth round and Mickens in the seventh, rather than in the reverse order, was a bit of a surprise — even to Smith.

"I thought Mike was going to go first, because he was rated higher — they had a second-round, third-round grade on him, so I thought I thought he was going to end up going first," Smith said. "I was just happy that I went. I was excited, and I got a text from ‘Mick' saying ‘congrats.' We keep it as a competition, but it ain't like it's a battle to get to who gets drafted first. We're friends — there was no trash-talking."

Smith acknowledges that he is assured of nothing, as far as making the roster. To that end, he after playing cornerback at Cincinnati, he is ready to move to safety, if need be, and play special teams to earn a spot on the team (he fielded punts in each practice at the team's rookie mini-camp).

"Once you get safety down, corner is kind of easier to play," Smith said. "(Dallas secondary coach Dave Campo) said just learn safety, and keep corner kind of secondary, but have it in my mind, and be able to play both.

"And I feel good about special teams. Special teams is one of the biggest (plays) in the NFL. One big play, from a punt return or a kick return or a kickoff fumble — that can change a game around. Some people probably don't look at that, but if you look at it, special teams plays a big part in some games."

Smith and Mickens had 12 and 14 interceptions, respectively, in their college careers, and were considered one of the better cornerback tandems in the country in 2008. But Smith said that they both arrived in Valley Ranch for the Cowboys' rookie mini-camp with the attitude that their jobs have to be earned, rather than simply handed to them.

"I think everybody that got drafted has something to prove — I mean, it's another level." He said. "There's been first-round draft choices that haven't panned out, and there's been seventh-round guys and free agents that turned out real good. So I figure everybody has something to prove, to go to that next level. Everybody came here with the mind to get better, so that's what we're trying to do."

Not lost on Smith is the fact that the Cowboys decided not to bring back two high-profile defensive backs over the offseason: safety Roy Williams and cornerback Pacman Jones.

"I look at it as a big opportunity," Smith said. "If they're letting guys go, they must feel confident in what they're bringing in. We've got a chance to play, so we've got to just take advantage of it. There's a lot of openings. We've got to come in here and compete. Hopefully I can be out there on Sundays."

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