One day Akron senior cornerback Dwight Smith might look back on his fantastic 2000 season and point to one play as his most memorable: a diving interception of a pass thrown by Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick during the Zips' 52-23 loss to the Hokies on Sept. 2. On the play Smith, who had improved his speed and footwork with months of weight training and agility drills, cut in front of Andr� Davis to intercept the ball. Since intercepting Vick, Smith has been on a tear, picking off seven passes in Akron's last four games to take over the national lead with eight interceptions.
If you've never heard of Smith, don't be surprised. Entering this season he had just five career interceptions and carried a reputation as the Zips' biggest underachiever. "When I came to Akron, I thought I could get by on raw talent," says Smith, who in 1996 rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had 12 interceptions for Detroit Central. "After last year I decided it was time to prepare for my future. Once I started to accept coaching, plays started to come more easily."
Smith, who spent the majority of his childhood in the home of his maternal grandparents, Robert and Cardell, was initially recruited by Michigan, but the Wolverines dropped him after he delayed sending his transcripts to the NCAA clearinghouse. (Dwight had spent a year at a high school in Atlanta while living with his mother, Brenda.) Akron stuck with Dwight and awarded him a scholarship when he was cleared to play by the NCAA in September 1997.
Early in Smith's career, getting him to go to class and watch film "was a constant battle," says Zips pass defensive coordinator Bob Morris. "He wasn't a dependable member of the team." Smith was confident, but even that often worked against him. After returning an interception against Ohio last season, Smith was slapped with a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration. "I jumped on him about that," says Morris. "We've had a lot of sit-down talks since then."
Those talks have helped bring about Smith's turnaround. He improved his grades enough to avoid summer school this year, and he has also become a student of the game, often spending his free time studying film. Smith, who runs a 4.48 in the 40 and bench-presses 410 pounds, has helped Akron this season not only with his interceptions but also occasionally lining up at wide receiver and returning punts and kickoffs. In last Saturday's 52-35 loss to Northern Illinois, he didn't make any interceptions but caught one pass for 46 yards, and was on the field for all but 10 minutes of the game.
"I realized I needed to humble myself to make a difference on this team," says Smith, whose greatest lesson came with the birth of his son, Dwight Jr., last November. Besides marrying Dwight Jr.'s mother, Maresha Howard, as soon as he gets his degree in business, the elder Dwight also aspires to earn enough money in pro football to support the grandparents who raised him. "But even if the NFL thing doesn't work out," he says, "football has made me a better man."