Brenden Smith’s role in last season’s NAIA National Championship football game was as a spectator, not a participant.
The former Indian Creek High School player will be back in his element as a player when No. 6 Marian University battles seventh-ranked Southern Oregon in the title matchup at Daytona (Florida) Memorial Stadium.
As one of the Knights’ main cogs on special teams, Smith plans to make his presence felt – literally – the night of Dec. 19 in what he hopes is the program’s second championship in four years.
Marian and Southern Oregon also met in the 2014 NAIA final with the Raiders capitalizing on four first-half Marian turnovers to win, 55-31.
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Redshirting last season prevented Smith from lending anything more than vocal support for a team which, at the time, was making its second title appearance in three seasons (Marian won the championship in 2012).
This time, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound backup safety will be padded up and ready to go.
Smith’s area of expertise — at least early in his college football career — is special teams with 23 tackles, two blocked punts, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season.
“Special teams is a ‘want’ kind of thing. Brenden clearly wants to be good at it and has made some gigantic plays for us,” third-year Marian head coach Mark Henninger said. “You definitely have to have some fearlessness, and Brenden will hit you.
“He’s not afraid.”
Smith’s punt blocks in postseason victories against Campbellsview (Kentucky) and Grand View (Iowa) helped get Marian to the Dec. 5 NAIA semifinal at Saint Francis. The Knights won 45-14.
Although grateful to be on the field, Smith’s special teams role is a drastic departure from his career at Indian Creek, where as a senior in 2013 he was named the Daily Journal’s Player of the Year after rushing for 960 yards, catching 53 passes for 948 yards and scoring 34 touchdowns. He was a four-year standout for the Braves and finished his career as one of the state’s all-time leading receivers.
But with upperclassmen ahead of him on the defensive depth chart for Marian, Smith has had to settle for a lesser role as he bides his time to eventually join the defensive rotation. In his quest to contribute to the Knights’ success, he has been a whirling dervish on all four special teams units: kick and punt coverage and returns.
“My role has kind of increased a little bit on special teams as the season’s gone on. I’ve been put in more of a blitzing position,” Smith said. “I like kickoffs a lot, but I also like to beat a dude downfield and make the tackle.”
Smith tallied a career-best four tackles in the national semifinal win at Saint Francis.
As he gets older, Smith, who also plays for Marian’s baseball program as a pitcher/outfielder, hopes to eventually become an impact defensive player on the football team.
Henninger wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
“Brenden is only a redshirt freshman at this point. Physically, he has everything we want our safeties to have,” Henninger said. “We talked this year of possibly moving him to outside linebacker because he moves so well and is physical, but we kept him at safety.”
In the meantime, Smith is more than willing to add his unique dash of special to the Knights’ special teams.
“I think it’s about not taking a play off or not taking a play for granted. With special teams you get maybe 13 to 15 plays a game,” Smith said. “Right now it just feels good to feel like part of the team.”
NAIA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Who: No. 6 Marian University (11-2) vs. No. 7 Southern Oregon University (11-2)
When: 6:05 p.m. Dec. 19
Where: Daytona Beach, Florida
Stadium: Daytona Municipal Stadium
Local Marian players: Greenwood – Jacob Oglesby, So., OL. Indian Creek – Nic Brown, Fr., QB; Brenden Smith, R-Fr., DB; Braxton Zachery, Fr., OL. Roncalli – Daniel Rojas, Sr., DB; David Schott, Fr., LB; Joe Swan, Fr., LB.
THE SMITH FILE
Name: Brenden Smith
Family: Parents, Brian and Amy; sister, Haylie, 16
High school: Indian Creek (2014)
College: Marian University
Sport: Football (also plays baseball)
Position: Defensive back/special teams
Size: 6-1, 205 pounds
Major: Business management
Favorite TV show: “Lost”
Favorite food: Chicken parmesan
Favorite movie: “Remember the Titans”
Favorite athlete: Bo Jackson
Favorite team: Indianapolis Colts