Branden Smith is a rare breed of college football player. Not only is he blessed with uncommon athletic ability, but he was able to play on both sides of the ball for the Georgia Bulldogs, something that is very rare in today's college football landscape.
During his recruiting, it had been reported that the Georgia coaching staff showed Smith tape of former All-American cornerback Champ Bailey during his visit to Georgia, when he played on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs. It was still a surprise to Smith, who was recruited as a corner, when he got the chance to play offense for the team.
“My freshman year, I was really amazed to be playing as a freshman on both sides of the ball,” said Smith. “My first game against Oklahoma State, it was shocking. They said I was going to play both ways, but I didn’t really believe it. I had to see it for myself.”
In the first game of his career, on the road against Oklahoma State, Smith received four touches on the offensive side of the ball, totaling 14 yards. They were just scratching the surface of the type of talent Smith possessed, as teams such as South Carolina and New Mexico State would eventually discover.
Smith would go on to finish his career with 363 rushing yards, averaging over nine yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns and four interceptions. Over the last five years, only 11 players in total have reached at least 100 career rushing yards while recording multiple rushing touchdowns and interceptions, as told to me by Marty Couvillon of cfbstats.com. Of those on that list, Smith is seventh in rushing yards and third in interceptions.
“It was exciting,” Smith said of being able to have a career on both sides of the ball. “It feels good to play on both sides and know you can dominate on both sides of the ball.”
Smith did say that there is more studying required, having to know both playbooks, but it was an obstacle that he was willing to overcome.
“Since I love the game, I worked hard to learn it,” Smith stated. “If a coach needed me to play offense, I was there. I was there to play any position that was needed. That’s the type of player I am.”
Georgia secondary coach Scott Lakatos raved about Smith’s passion for the game.
“(Smith) loves football,” Lakatos said. “He’ll work at it, he’s grown and matured. He understands what he needs to do to be competitive.”
Lakatos has previously worked at Syracuse, Rutgers, and Connecticut, coaching the likes of future NFL players Darius Butler, Tyvon Branch, and Nate Jones. While saying it is tough to categorize those players because they each have their own strengths, Lakatos mentioned Smith's speed was a step above the rest.
“(Smith’s) the first guy I’ve had that was a top-end speed guy that was athletic and developed a physical presence,” said Lakatos. “He’s explosive and you see it when he has the opportunity to break away from people.”
Being a two-way player is something that Smith believes will help him in the future.
“I’m happy that I can play on both sides of the ball,” remarked Smith. “Whoever drafts me knows they have a guy who can play two sides of the ball, and special teams. Every coach dreams of having players like that.”
It was hard to believe when Smith told me he was once only a 3-star recruit. That was all before he showed up to a combine in Atlanta and ran a 4.28 40-yard dash. Nearly instantaneously, Smith became a 5-star recruit, and was ranked as the second-best cornerback by Scout.com in the 2008 class. He appreciated the hype, but still made sure to make the right decision for himself about where to attend school.
“I was very humble with the hype and took my time with the decision I made to go to Georgia,” said Smith.
Heading to Athens was a wise decision for Smith for more than just being able to show off his talents on both sides of the ball. While the Bulldogs struggled during Smith’s first two seasons, they won 22 of their last 26 games, including going to two SEC Championship games.
This past season, Smith was a part of a unit that was 18th in the nation in scoring defense, and eighth in pass defense. While Smith’s team-leading nine pass breakups were a big help, there was plenty of talent to go around. In the front seven, the Bulldogs had three potential first round picks in John Jenkins, Jarvis Jones, and Alec Ogletree, while boasting three other draftable prospects in the secondary in Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo, and Shawn Williams.
“It’s amazing playing with the talent we had,” Smith said emphatically. “We were one of the best defenses in the nation, and that comes with the coaches too. We just had that connection with each other. If one person messed up, another would be there to help out.”
Smith said the group grew together through hanging out off the field and studying together. While Smith said his career didn’t go quite the way he had planned, he said “things happen for a reason” and that he “wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Going into his last game ever at Sanford Stadium, knowing his college career was coming to an end dawned on Smith.
“It was very emotional, knowing it was the last time I was going to be playing ‘Between the Hedges,’” Smith said. “I dreamed about playing college football and going onto the NFL, and everything just happened so fast. I didn’t really think my four years were going to go that fast.”
Smith said he realized it might be his “last time playing football,” but that’s something he didn’t have to worry about for long.
Smith was able to attend the East-West Shrine Game, which is regarded as one of the top two postseason All-Star games that an NFL prospect can attend. In the game, Smith was able to intercept Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder. He said it was a great chance to be “playing with some of the best players in college football from different conferences.”
“It taught us how we can work with each other,” said Smith. “Seeing how fast we can learn and how good we can work with another teammate we’ve only known for a week. It was a good opportunity for me to try and increase my draft stock.”
Currently training for the NFL Draft at XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Florida, Smith is working with some of the top prospects and instructors in the nation in order to try and further boost his stock. Other defensive prospects down at XPE are former teammate defensive tackle John Jenkins, UCLA defensive end Datone Jones, Miami cornerback Brandon McGee, former Miami safety Ray Ray Armstrong, North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, and LSU middle linebacker Kevin Minter. While Smith is generally regarded as a Day Three draft pick, he realizes that he is making the most of the situation.
“I’m not really a high ranked player right now and it motivates me even more to work harder than some of the higher ranked players,” said Smith. “I’m out here grinding everyday and working with the best players in college football.”
When asked if Smith was a high-character individual, Lakatos responded, “Absolutely.”
“No question about that,” Lakatos continued. “You won’t find anybody (at Georgia) who won’t stand behind him. He has done everything asked to do of him.”
Working at XPE has been a fascinating time for Smith thus far because of the type of athletes that he is working with, how they are each treated, and the type of work that they are doing.
“They treat everybody the same,” commented Smith. “Whether you’re a big time player or not, they treat everybody as one. It’s a business. We’re working together but at the same time we’re pitted against each other. It’s all about who’s working the hardest, training the hardest, and who wants it more.”
Right now, Smith is currently running his 40-time in the 4.3 second range. They haven’t been going full speed yet on other speed and agility drills such as the three-cone drill or 20-yard shuttle, because they are just trying to get their technique down at the moment, according to Smith. The main thing Smith said that he is personally working on is to improve his weight while maintaining the same blazing speed that he is known for.
Soon, Smith will have the chance to achieve a dream that began when he started playing football at the age of seven: suiting up in the NFL.
“I’m really excited,” Smith said. “Knowing I’m a step closer to that day, it’s exciting to me. I’ve been working hard all my life to get to the NFL. Most people dream to make it to the NFL, but not everybody can make it. It’s all about who wants it more. Doesn’t matter what round you get drafted in, it’s about who wants it the most. I want it a lot. That’s why I’m working hard and really motivated to grind 24/7.”
Watch out for Georgia’s Pro Day on March 14. It could be a day when Smith records one of the fastest 40-times of the draft season.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.