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Work ethic puts Smith on fast track for Mids

It didn't take long for Josh Smith to come out of nowhere and carve out a spot on Navy's football team.

After going through the rude introduction to the Naval Academy known as plebe summer, then toiling in anonymity with the school's junior varsity for a season, Smith tried playing in the secondary for the first time last year. He stuck around by continuously sticking it to opposing ball carriers.

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By the time the Midshipmen limped home with a 2-10 record marked by one of the worst defenses in the nation, at least Navy could smile about the tough Indiana country boy who never stopped competing and collected the numbers to prove it.

When a free safety leads his defense in tackles - Smith's 127 stops placed him 53 ahead of Navy's nearest defender - it usually means the unit has problems. But, from his studious approach to the game, to his willingness to play through nagging injuries, to his maturation in the role of signal caller from the football equivalent of center field, Smith gave the coaching staff remarkably few headaches for a newcomer.

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"[Smith] is a guy who has taken it upon himself to make himself a better player. He wasn't even in the picture when I got here," said Buddy Green, the team's defensive coordinator and secondary coach, who joined coach Paul Johnson in Annapolis last year.

"He will compete as hard in field-goal blocking drills as he does when it's time to go out between the lines and play defense. When you get guys with that competitive spirit, you get better. You don't find a lot of guys like that."

Navy found Smith in the tiny Midwestern town of Attica, which contains about 3,500 people, has three stoplights, one school combining grades six through 12, is surrounded by corn and bean fields, and is filled with kids who dream mainly about playing big-time basketball.

Smith, 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, was a two-sport star at Attica High, where he started for four years as a running back/linebacker in football and as a guard in basketball. As a senior, he was one of the state's finest in each sport.

In the Class A state championship game loss against Adams Central that year, Smith set a record with 42 carries that produced 230 yards and two touchdowns, the last of his 63 scores on the season. Smith's 811 career points rank second in state history.

The next spring, he capped his high school basketball career - which also featured five summers with an AAU team that included current Notre Dame point guard Chris Thomas - by bringing Attica from 14 points down with 6:27 left to edge Blue River Valley to win the state title. Smith averaged 24 points that year, 12th best in the state.

Not the most gifted athlete (his best 40-yard dash time is 4.63 seconds), Smith hardly attracted Division I-A scholarship offers. Purdue, 20 miles away, offered him preferred walk-on status in football and less in basketball. Then came Navy, which had made recruiting rounds at Attica.

One visit to Annapolis and a full scholarship offer persuaded Smith to head east. He figured he could adjust to the demanding schedule. He typically was up at dawn lifting weights and often stayed around to shoot in the school gym until the early evening, even during football season.

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"It prepared me in some ways [for Navy], and in other ways it didn't. I wish someone had told me what to expect [during plebe summer], because I had no clue what I was getting into," he said.

"We were a small school, and we played other small schools. Our football scores were 70-7 sometimes. AAU ball opened my eyes. There were a lot better athletes out there, and I needed to work hard to keep up with them."

The coaching staff found out how hard Smith was willing to work a year ago, after senior Lenter Thomas went down with a knee injury early in the season. Smith, who had never played defensive back in a game, stepped into the opener against SMU, recorded 14 tackles and recovered a fumble. He started the final seven games.

Johnson and Green love the way Smith is addicted to watching videotape, whether to grade his own pass coverage technique or to learn the tendencies of opposing passers and receivers.

"He's a hard-nosed kid with a nose for the ball," Johnson said. "We need more of those guys."

Smith said he knows Navy's defense better than ever, is communicating signals with more certainty and has learned to peek less at the opposing quarterback, a habit that got him burned deep at times last year. Now, it's a matter of helping to lift Navy to respectability, starting with a defense that allowed 36.3 points a game in 2002.

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"We just kept losing and losing. I don't want to get used to that. It's embarrassing," Smith said. "But I was a part of that. I'm not letting that happen again."

Navy opener

Matchup:Virginia Military Institute vs. Navy in season opener for both teams

Site:Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

When:Tomorrow, 1:30 p.m.

Radio:WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)


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