LAFAYETTE — Bernard Smith is a defensive end who prefers outside linebacker, while also dreaming of playing nose guard for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Despite all the self-questioning about which position he prefers, Smith has emerged as one of the Sun Belt Conference leaders in sacks and tackles for loss.
ULL defensive line coach Tim Edwards said Smith has become a disruptive force for the Cajuns, who’ll try to contain the University of Louisiana at Monroe offense starting at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field.
Talk of postseason bowls has become a recent topic for the Cajuns (7-2, 5-1), who trail only SBC leader Arkansas State (6-2, 4-0). ULM comes in at 2-6, 1-3.
Smith originally signed with West Virginia before playing at Northeast Mississippi Community College. The Atlanta native transferred to ULL two years ago, and has blossomed this season.
The 240-pound senior has 9? tackles for losses and four sacks this season.
Edwards said Smith is well-suited for ULL’s new 3-4 defense, a big key to ULL’s seven-win season — the most by the program since 1993.
“He’s an explosive player,” Edwards said. “I really didn’t evaluate (Smith’s) performance last season, but the defense that we are playing now is designed to put players in situations in which they can make plays.
“(Smith) is taking advantage now of this defense and using those situations to his ability. You also get to the point in your career when you realize it’s now or never.”
Smith said he’s played much better this season than last, when he had just 31 tackles and two behind the line of scrimmage.
“I think this year it’s a situation where I am finally able to mature in a university setting, and I’m experiencing a year where I have gotten used to the game speed and the fundamentals of playing on the defensive line,” Smith said. “I’m developing into the player I want to be.”
Last year, the Cajuns’ defensive scheme was one that Smith said didn’t favor much disruption from the linemen.
“I was third string, part of a three-player rotation,” he said. “In the defense we played, it was more of us (linemen) holding and letting the linebackers (make the plays). This year, it’s more of things starting up front with the line and having us make plays too.”
Smith said he likes defending the run game.
“I really wouldn’t mind playing nose guard if the coaches would let me,” he said. “I’ve played on the inside before. Run defense is something I really like. I like to get down there and get grimy.”
Smith said he feels more natural at outside linebacker, where he can use his speed and instincts.
“At linebacker, I like to be able to react at a position where you can also read the play and then bring the pain,” Smith said.
Reacting the way he does as a lineman is driven by speed, Smith said.
“That helps me get under the blocker before he gets up in his stance,” Smith said.
ULL’s secondary and linebackers, who have 12 interceptions this season, have been the underlying reason for the success of the defensive line, Smith said.
“I wouldn’t have as many (tackles for losses) if it wouldn’t be for the secondary coverage on the receivers, when the quarterbacks have to hold up longer on their throws,” Smith said.
Smith said it’s also helped that ULL’s defense has eight seniors, who started as a unit for most of the past two seasons.
“The communication is really there. You know what the guy next to you is going to do. You don’t even have to check on him to make sure about whether he is ready before the ball is snapped,” Smith said.
Cajun Field attendance
The Cajuns have a chance to establish a school record for average home attendance.
ULL has drawn an average of 29,420 for four home games this season. In 1977, an average of 25,224 watched the Cajuns play six contests at home.
Total attendance for ULL this year is 117,678. The Cajun Field record for total attendance came in 1976 (163,143).