A few months from now, he might be

By Tom Hardesty Record-Courier staff writer Published:

A few months from now, he might be playing in the NFL.

Sounds like the script for some feel-good, made-for-TV movie, doesn't it?

But it's not. It's reality, and Smiley himself has a hard time believing it sometimes.

"I came real close to not having a football career," he said. "I almost let it slip by."

Smiley never played football at Kent Roosevelt High School until his senior year _ and did so only after he had been talked into giving the sport a try.

Now, five years later, Smiley is considered one of the top collegiate defensive backs in the country as a senior free safety at Youngstown State University. He's already been chosen to play in the Hula Bowl, one of the top postseason college all-star games, Jan. 22 in Honolulu, and likely will be invited to the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 26 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

"I remember sitting in the room with my friends as a freshman, and we were saying the only way to get to the NFL from here is to be at least a two-time All-American," said Smiley. "And I've done that."

Smiley, a three-year first-team All-Gateway Conference performer for the Penguins, was named a first-team Division I-AA All-American as a junior and second-team choice as a sophomore. A thunderous hitter, Smiley currently ranks fifth on Youngstown State's career tackles list with 323.

Smiley may play free safety but he's a linebacker at heart, patrolling the secondary like a shark searching for prey.

"I'd describe myself as real aggressive," said Smiley. "I like to play the run more than the pass, and I'd rather go for the big hit than go for the ball. I try to intimidate the receiver."

Despite missing the first 3 1/2 games of this season with a sprained right knee, Smiley still has recorded 69 tackles, one interception and two passes broken up, helping the Penguins (11-2) reach Saturday's Division I-AA semifinal against Florida A&M (10-3) at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown.

Smiley already has played on one national championship team at Youngstown State, starting in the secondary as a sophomore when the Penguins defeated McNeese State 10-9 in the 1997 title contest.

Now, he's hoping to cap his college career in the most perfect of manners before setting his sights on playing football at the next _ and highest _ level.

"That's in the back of my mind," said Smiley of the NFL, "but first in my mind is Florida A&M. We had three goals coming into this season: win the Gateway Conference, and we did that; make the playoffs, and we've done that; and win the national championship, and we're working on that.

"We've got to seize this opportunity. For the seniors, this is our last home game ever, whether we win or lose. We have to leave our hearts on the field and not hold anything back."

Smiley has held nothing back since he decided to give high school football a shot as a senior at Roosevelt.

"I really wasn't into football," admitted Smiley, a criminal justice major on track to graduate in March. "I played football in little league in Cleveland, but I thought I was too small to play high school football. I only weighed 160 pounds in high school, if that."

Therefore, it took some persuading by former Rough Rider coach John Nemec to get Smiley on the football field.

"I coached him in track his sophomore and junior years, and talked him into coming out for football his senior year," said Nemec. "I thought he was a natural wide receiver _ until we handed the ball off to him in practice. I knew then we had a great tailback."

Smiley starred at both running back and defensive back for the Rough Riders, earning Metro League player of the year honors in 1994.

But since he had played only one season of high school football, he was one of the best-kept secrets in Ohio.

"Had people known about him, he would have been highly recruited," said Nemec. "He was significant in us winning the league title that year."

Even local schools Kent State and Akron didn't recruit Smiley, who eventually chose Youngstown State, a high-profile Division I-AA program that had won national titles in 1991, '93 and '94.

After redshirting in 1995, he posted 39 tackles, three interceptions and four passes broken up as a freshman in '96.

"Things started pretty slow for me," said Smiley. "I redshirted my first year, and my (redshirt) freshman year I had to learn the different terminology's, schemes and plays.

"Then my sophomore year, everything just took off."

With his penchant for delivering the teeth-rattling hit and his sprinter's speed (he was 6th in the state in the 400 meters as a senior at Roosevelt), Smiley quickly became a leader _ and an enforcer _ in the Penguins' secondary in 1997, leading the team in tackles that year with 92. He also demonstrated sound coverage skills, recording three interceptions and eight pass breakups.

His rapid improvement continued as a junior, when Smiley registered a team-best 123 tackles to go with two interceptions and five pass breakups.

Although he suffered a setback with the sprained knee injury at the start of this season, Smiley hasn't missed a beat. He's still as fast, fierce and physical as always.

His size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), speed (4.45 in the 40-yard dash), athleticism (40 1/2-inch vertical leap), and strength (305-pound bench press, 455-pound squat) are numbers good enough to have him ranked as the 24th-best safety prospect in college football by B.S. Sheet, a publication specializing in rating NFL Draft prospects.

However, Smiley's stock could rise at the Combine, as it did for current Pittsburgh Steelers rookie safety Scott Shields.

Shields was a little-known safety coming out of tiny Weber State last year, but had a strong showing at the Combine and his stock rose high enough to where the Steelers selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft. Shields is now a part-time starter in the Steelers' secondary.

Shields is bigger than Smiley at 6-4, 225, but Smiley has an edge in speed (Shields runs a 4.55 40) and vertical leap (Shields jumps 35 inches). In fact, no safety from last year's draft class ran a 40 time faster or had a vertical leap higher than Smiley.

Deral Boykin, also a defensive back, was the last Rough Rider to play in the NFL, and Nemec thinks Smiley might very well be the next.

"I feel he can play in the pros," said Nemec. "He has the speed, the great instincts and a positive attitude, three necessary ingredients for success in the NFL. Dwyte is a great all-around athlete."

But Smiley says first things first.

"I think about it all the time, the things I could do for my family if I played in the NFL," he said. "But right now I'm just thinking about going to Tennessee (site of the national title game). We all know Florida A&M has a high-powered offense, so we have to do the things we know we can do. They've won both their playoff games on the road, so they handle adversity as well as we do.

"It's just another challenge, though."

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