WVU football: Eain Smith working to improve his run defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Much has been made about the hit that West Virginia's stoppers took after a top-three ranking in total defense last season, with only four starters returning for 2011.
One of those, junior strong safety Terence Garvin, said that number should be increased by one.
"Eain Smith really knows a lot about this defense," Garvin said of the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 odd stack scheme. "He's been here five years. He gets his chance this year."
Garvin has a point. Among the WVU defense, only third-year starters Julian Miller, at tackle, and middle linebacker Najae Goode have played in more games - 39 - than Smith's 38, mostly at free safety as the backup to two-time All-Big East performer Robert Sands.
Smith has nine career starts, including his first four college games at free safety in 2008 before Sands took the job. He's also played a lot on special teams.
What might be bigger for Smith, of Miramar, Fla., is that he's bigger, period, and healthy for the first time in a long time.
"I needed to get better in the run game," the deep-voiced Smith said Tuesday in WVU's Puskar Center. "I've done that mostly by getting my weight up to make me stronger in tackling. I was 195 (pounds) last season, now I'm 203.
"My legs can handle the weight, and I haven't lost any speed. I'm a lot stronger than I was, and I can tell the difference when I hit someone. I've been limited some still in lifting, but my right shoulder is a whole lot stronger; my rotator cuff is much stronger."
Smith missed spring practice this year after undergoing surgery to repair that shoulder and the rotator cuff. It was an injury he suffered in the 2009 season, but he continued to play - mostly last season in nickel and dime situations.
"Eain was out all spring, and it's good to see him out there running around," WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said of his expected starting free safety. "We're still trying to get the rust off him."
The 5-foot-11 Smith said the limitations of playing with an injury became frustrating.
"From certain angles, I couldn't lift my arm high enough to do what I wanted and needed to do," he said. "Sometimes I'd go up in the air for a ball and stretched out and it really hurt. It affected my game a lot.
"Missing spring practice helped me more than anything I could have done. I needed time to get my shoulder back where it should be, and it gave me a chance to get a better understanding of the defense, sort of from a coaches' point of view.
"I concentrated on not just learning my position, but all of the safety positions, linebackers, corners. I picked up a lot on how the whole scheme operates."
Smith knows the expectations at his position. With three safeties in the 3-3-5, WVU has excelled in recent seasons, having eight All-Big East first-team picks at safety in the past eight seasons.
Sands, Eric Wicks and Jahmile Addae were two-time picks, with Mike Lorello and Brian King chosen once to the all-league team. Wicks and Lorello also were second-team picks in that span. Since 2003, the only season West Virginia hasn't had an all-conference safety was 2008.
"I've always liked playing in our defense and it fits me," Smith said. "It allows me to play the field, use my strong points, my awareness, my speed. I can come down on the run or make plays in the pass."
As for those seven lost WVU starters from 2010, Smith said they are missed, but maybe not as much as some prognosticators figure.
"I believe we might be faster than we were on defense last season," said Smith, no doubt considering end Bruce Irvin, new weakside linebacker Josh Francis and boundary safety Darwin Cook - as well as himself. "We've got a lot of skill on the field, plenty of playmakers.
"I think we'll be better than most people think on defense. We've just got to jell together."
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.