Pope John's Smith adapting to new position at Penn State
by PETER STEIN
Anthony Smith knows how to adapt. It seems to be his specialty.
The kid from Dover adapted to life as a Pope John High School student. He adjusted to Valley Forge Military Academy, got the hang of playing defensive back for Penn State.
Smith has transitioned smoothly from Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien to O'Brien¹s successor James Franklin, just as he did from Pope John head coach Vic Paternostro to Brian Carlson.
Adapt and move forward. Smith does it again and again, so why should his shift from cornerback to free safety at Penn State be any different?
It shouldn't, judging from how Smith has been able to cope with new surroundings, new coaches, new rules, new playbooks, new schemes.
He should do well as a Nittany Lions safety, even if he fills a reserve role for another season.
“I'm taking it day by day,” Smith said.
“The coaches and older players are working with me. ... I make mistakes here and there, but they're all mistakes that can be fixed.”
Though Smith played sparingly as a freshman last season, he did get into three games -- against Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Central Florida -- and made a tackle against EMU. He seems destined for second string this year, playing with the “twos,” as he put it, during training camp.
With three seniors playing free safety for the Nittany Lions, the position will be wide open in 2015, making it a great place for an emerging sophomore to be in 2014.
“I'm just looking forward to this year,” Smith said.
“I just want to make an impact as much as I can, whether that's in special teams, long-snapping, playing a dime position, I'm open to anything. My goal is to help out the team as much as I can. And get on the field.”
Smith and his Penn State teammates will open the season against Central Florida on August 30 in Dublin, Ireland, a long way from Pope John High School.
During his Pope John days, Smith was among the players on both Paternostro's last football team in 2010 and Carlson's first in 2011.
Smith was just the kind of player Carlson needed after taking over as head coach. “One, he's a great kid, a great character kid,” Carlson said. “Two, he's very athletic. ... Anthony can play wide receiver, he can play cornerback, he can play free safety. He can even play quarterback, he's that athletic.”
Smith was an All-Herald first-team defensive back in 2011 after recording three interceptions, 12 pass deflections and 25 tackles that season.
He graduated the following June, and though his grades passed the recruiting and NCAA guidelines, they weren't quite good enough for a Division I scholarship.
Smith took care of that with a fall term of referring to himself as “this plebe” and waking at 5:15 in the morning while attending Valley Forge Military Academy.
He also showed that valued adaptability, stepping from his familiar cornerback role to play quarterback at Valley Forge.
Smith, who had never played so much as one down of offensive football at Pope John -- though as Carlson said, he was certainly capable -- took on the Valley Forge offense¹s most important position, not only proving his continued willingness and ability to adjust, but also learning how to read opponents, how to call plays.
Both are now helping Smith as he takes on the free safety position at Penn State, the school that recruited him in late 2012 when O'Brien was looking for a cornerback. Smith¹s time as Valley Forge¹s quarterback had allowed him to display his speed and athleticism, catching O'Brien¹s attention.
O'Brien, though, drew attention from the NFL after returning stability to the Nittany Lions' troubled football program in the post-Joe Paterno era.
O'Brien, who had been the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator before landing Penn State's head-coaching job, was hired last winter as head coach of the Houston Texans, entrusted with reviving a team that went from AFC South champion in 2012 to last year's 2-14 crash landing.
With O'Brien headed to Texas, Penn State was left to start over again.
"We knew after the (2013) season that he was going to get some calls from NFL teams," Smith said of O¹Brien. "And we knew there was always going to be a possibility that he was going to leave, because he's a great coach. ...
"But I'm happy for him. The Texans were the best fit for him and his family, so I'm happy for him."
Enter James Franklin, who stepped down after three seasons as Vanderbilt's head coach to replace O¹Brien.
"Coach Franklin's here right now," Smith said, "and I couldn't ask for a better coach. The excitement he brings to State College is just out of this world. And I'm looking forward to these next few years playing for Coach Franklin. He's definitely changing things up around here. ... Day by day, we're all buying into his plan of being a family, so everything's going well."
Franklin brought in Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator, replacing John Butler. That meant even more adjusting for Smith. "It was difficult," Smith said, "because I transitioned (from corner to safety) as he (Shoop) was getting here. So either way, I was going to have to learn something new. He did bring a new scheme, and we've been picking up on it fast. Coach Shoop is one of the coaches that earned my trust right away when he first got here.
"He's someone you can go and talk to. And I'm really looking forward to playing for him."
In an offseason filled with changes for Penn State football, Smith has been making some of his own, evolving into what he needs to become. "I definitely had to put on some weight. I gained about 10, 15 pounds," said Smith, who is listed on Penn State¹s official roster as 6 feet, 196 pounds. "I definitely had to look at my playbook a lot more. The playbook for a safety is a lot more broad than it is for a corner. I have to know a lot more, I'm responsible for a lot more calls. So it's something that I took to heart, it's something I took as a challenge."
And he has met the challenge, perhaps working himself into a starting candidate for next season. He'll do what he is asked this year, he'll stay sharp, keep battling, keep adapting and moving forward.
"You have to have an urgency to improve," Smith said. "You have to be on top of your game 24/7. Because everyone is working just as hard as you in the weight room and during the summer. ... Competition is always right behind you, pushing you to work harder and harder."