The 90 Illini #52: Derrick Smith
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I have a subscription to Pro Football Focus' "premium college stats". I don't write about it much, mostly because their data is behind a paywall. If they come out with a game report for an Illini football game and then I tell you how each player graded out, I'm kind of taking their hard work and putting it behind my "paywall". I don't like that.
I will, though occasionally tease some of their data because you should be subscribed to their stats. I know there's some debate on how they do things, but... I guess I should just write a paragraph or three about that.
PFF charts every play of every game. I've seen the argument that it's a bunch of college kids grading the games and who can trust some college kid to grade players? That's not the way to look at it, in my opinion. I don't know if it's "a bunch of college kids", but I do know that someone with zero football knowledge could grade a game like this.
I've always told people that my mom could do it, and my mom knows very little about football. Take each play and watch it 22 times (every single play of every single game). If the offensive lineman you're watching on that play clears out his guy, give him a high grade for that play. If it's kind of neutral - the DT gets a little push, the OG is able to move him slightly - give a neutral grade. If the guard clears a massive hole and sends the DT backpedaling, give him a great grade for that play.
Do that for every player in every play of every game and my mom is going to get some really solid player grades. I can almost guarantee that Kendrick Green would have been her highest graded player last season. There's just too many examples of him dominating his one-on-one matchups (and not getting dominated). Chart every play and he's going to come out with the best grade. The only real struggle is watching every single play 22 times and charting 22 players.
That's why I trust PFF's numbers. Yes, some analysts are "tough graders" and keep the numbers low and others are easy and keep the numbers high, so there's going to be some noise in there, but over a season, I fully trust the numbers.
And the numbers for Derrick Smith last season were not good. I'll just use a few of PFF's specific grades (out of 100) to make my point. And I'll use some other players for comparison.
Tackling grade: Jake Hansen 90.8, Devon Witherspoon 75.1, Derrick Smith 33.3
Pass coverage grade: Tony Adams 71.9, Quan Martin 56.9, Derrick Smith 30.2
That's why Derrick Smith was #34 on this list last year and has dropped to 52 this year. The numbers just weren't good last year. Let's talk about it.
52. Derrick Smith
Uniform number: 2
Year in school: Junior (without the Covid waiver, 1 year to play 1; with the Covid waiver, technically 2 years to play 2)
Height: 6'-2" -- Weight: 220 lbs.
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
Former School: Transfer from Miami (FL)
Five best offers: Miami, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi State
Tom Cruise rating:
2020 statistics: Played in all eight games, starting four. 22 tackles.
Derrick Smith started his college career at Miami. He then announced a transfer to Illinois and, after his paperwork was filed and Lovie Smith could talk about him publicly, Lovie announced that even though he was a safety at Miami, he would be a linebacker at Illinois. He sat out a year after transferring (practicing at linebacker) and then last season he was a... safety.
That's where the help was needed. And as the injuries mounted, you knew that he was needed there. The staff even moved Kerby Joseph from wide receiver back to safety halfway through the season last year because the safety depth chart was so thin.
That to say this: Smith was at safety out of roster necessity. But he's probably more of a linebacker than a safety? I was hoping he'd be a safety, but last year's numbers say that he's not a safety. He's a linebacker playing safety.
All things new, right? New staff, new scheme. He wasn't a safety in Lovie's scheme, but maybe he can be a safety in Ryan Walters' scheme? That's where he's listed on the roster right now, anyway. It could change to linebacker this fall, but Smith is more of the Nate Bussey-like "physical outside 'backer" type, and this defense has two "middle" linebackers and then DE-ish outside linebackers.
So the interesting thing for Derrick Smith will be where the staff wants to play him. Best case scenario is Nate Bussey - 100% lost in one scheme in 2009, 100% found in Vic Koenning's scheme in 2010. The other scenarios are not as kind. Right now I have him on the third-string at safety, and with the two transfers coming in (Prather Hudson and Eddie Smith), plus the returnees (Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and Kerby Joseph), he has a lot of players to beat out if he wants to make a charge this fall.