BELTON — As a youngster in college, Johnny Smith-Rider imagined himself as a future basketball star. It wasn’t until he got to high school that he had a revelation.
“When I got to high school, I really started to focus mostly on football,” sophomore linebacker Mary Hardin-Baylor said. “I realized there weren’t a lot of 5-foot-9 point guards in the NBA, so I thought football was the way to go.”
The only problem with that logic is that there aren’t a huge number of 5-9 year old college football players either.
No worries, though, because Smith-Rider can more than hold its own on the grill.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith-Rider is tied for the team lead with 13 tackles – 3½ for loss, including a sack – heading into the American Southwest Conference opener in tonight between No. 5 UMHB (1-1) and Southwest (1-1) at Crusader Stadium.
So what’s his secret to handling the fight so close to the line of scrimmage, where the vast majority of would-be blockers have a clear height advantage?
“I just use the techniques the coaches teach us and do it the best I can,” he said. “They wouldn’t put me in a position that they think I couldn’t perform.
“Nobody ever really told me to my face that I was too small to play, so I don’t think about it much.”
A safety at Haltom High School in the Fort Worth area, Smith-Rider transferred to linebacker upon his arrival at UMHB and made an immediate impact.
He only served a brief stint on the junior varsity team before being promoted Game 4 week as a rookie last year, when he appeared in 10 varsity games and made 12 saves.
“I was a safety in high school, but I played in the box a lot. There are a lot of similarities to the position I play now, but there’s a little less pass coverage now,” he said. he said. “When I got here, though, I didn’t expect to go through college as quickly as I did. It was cool.”
Smith-Rider spent his first season honing his technique and soaking up as much information as possible from Jacob Mueller and Akeem Jackson, two senior linebackers last season who led the Crusaders in tackles on their run. to the NCAA Division III National Championship.
Smith-Rider believes what he learned outside the lines of Mueller and Jackson was monumental in his development.
“I learned a lot from those guys. I learned the culture and the mentality of this football program,” he said. “I think learning that was just as important as learning the covers and the blitzes.These guys focused on teaching us how to carry on the tradition.
Now, Smith-Rider is focused on helping UMHB rebound from last week’s loss to No. 4 Wisconsin-Whitewater that ended the Crusaders’ 21-game winning streak.
“The result was not what we were looking for. We learned that we needed to be more physical throughout the game, from the first snap to the last snap. We cannot withdraw the games and we have to execute,” he said. “These types of games, with that atmosphere, are what I enjoy being more than anything.
“It’s the great thing to play here. Even though he is considered – in quotes – a small school, the coaches don’t treat him that way. They hold everyone to a very high standard, and that’s really cool.
NOTE: Prior to tonight’s kick-off, the pitch at Crusader Stadium will be officially named in honor of former head coach Pete Fredenburg.