Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
C.J. Smith is the best cornerback in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. And the second best, well, he’s probably on the opposite side of the field.
Smith and Jordan Champion have been the one-two punch for the Bison at cornerback for what seems like forever. In reality, the two will start their 26th game together this weekend at Youngstown State.
Smith has been a well-known commodity entering his third year as a starter. He emerged during the 2013 season, starting all 15 games on the side opposite of Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year turned New York Jets star Marcus Williams. All Smith did in 2013 was finish with 42 tackles, three interceptions and tally 18 passes defended, the second-most in the conference.
His coming-out party came in November, in a game at No. 15 Youngstown State. Williams was out with a knee injury, causing Smith to draw the Penguins’ number one receiver, Andre Stubbs. Smith was all over him, harassing Stubbs like an unwanted fly in the living room. He was in his back pocket the entire night, much to the chagrin of Penguin fans as they booed the NDSU corner senselessly. Smith loved every second of it, as he encouraged the boos in between NDSU’s defensive stops.
“That’s him,” said defensive backs coach Joe Klanderman, who was still a year away from joining the football staff during the 2013 Youngstown State game. Last year, Smith played sparingly against the Penguins at the Fargodome due to a sore knee. But one Youngstown State coach remembered 2013 and found Klanderman on the field after the game.
“Man, that’s too bad I didn’t get to see six play,” the Penguin defensive back coach told Klanderman. “I love watching that kid play. He’s the best in the League in my opinion.”
Smith capped his 2013 season with an interception against Towson in the FCS national championship game. He received honorable mention All- Missouri Valley and gained the respect from offenses across the league.
Smith’s notoriety came in somewhat of an instant. The opposite can be said of the 5-foot, 9-inch Champion, who, ironically, had his first start of his career against Youngstown State in 2013.
For Bison fans, Champion’s road to success has unfolded in front of our eyes. We’ve seen his worst – getting out-jumped for touchdowns – and his best – sacking University of North Dakota’s quarterback Keaton Studsrud. He’s made the transformation from special- teamer and reserve cornerback to one of the emotional leaders on defense and team captain.
“He’s a super intelligent player and just gets the game,” Klanderman said. “He’s the one that doesn’t get much of the limelight, but he’s the one that’s probably doing the most in terms of variety of things.”
Champion has transformed from kick coverage specialist to a flexible cornerback, lining up against wide receivers on the edge in NDSU’s base defense and shifting down to cover the slot receiver in nickel packages. He’s third on the team in tackles through the first nine games and his 43 stops is tops among corners in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“Special teams made me into a nasty and tenacious player,” Champion said. “You gotta be tenacious to play on special teams here so I think playing on that special team helped me become that.”
“Nasty” and “tenacious” are a couple of adjectives used to explain the way Champion’s companion covers wide receivers. Smith’s physical presence has helped lock down elite FCS receivers, such as SDSU’s Jake Wieneke this season. Wieneke was held to a season-low three receptions for 39 yards against Smith. He shut down the same Wieneke who shredded an FBS Kansas secondary for 180 yards and two touchdowns during the first game of the season.
But with the physicality comes penalties, and Smith was called for three against SDSU. Klanderman and head coach Chris Klieman said they aren’t worried about the flags.
“You’re going to get some pass interferences,” Klieman said. “The last thing I want to do is take a young man’s aggressiveness away from him so he won’t change one thing he did.”
Klanderman concurred, “(Smith’s) a good enough athlete to continue keeping his body under control and hopefully catch some of those balls instead of getting in those situations. Those balls get caught, those are a non-call.”
Smith missed the first game this season against Montana. Klanderman said when he returned to practice the following week, Smith set the tone for the defensive backs.
Against Montana, the Bison allowed 434 passing yards. The next three games with Smith back in the lineup against Weber State, the University of North Dakota and SDSU, the Bison allowed 452 passing yards combined.
Smith and Champion have replaced longtime starting safeties Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik as the leaders of the Bison secondary. Klanderman said they haven’t wasted any time leaving their mark on sophomore safety Tre Dempsey and freshman Robbie Grimsley.
“Colten Heagle was the kind of guy that would grab a guy by the throat and say, ‘Listen, this is it.’ Jordan’s not that way. Jordan is more of a positive reinforcement kind of guy,” Klanderman said. “When CJ came back, he kind of got into it and said, ‘Listen, guys, this is not the way we play.’ He’s really taken that quote, unquote Heagle role of leading.”
The Smith-Champion duo will start their 26th game together on Saturday. With the high amount of turnover on the Bison defense coming into the season, these two have been able to provide stability for a defense that’s giving up under 300 total yards a game.
Smith and Champion return to ground zero in Youngstown this weekend where they allowed 168 yards through the air in 2013. And it’s certain that sophomore quarterback Hunter Wells will be cautious testing these two vets with their reputation of making life a living hell for quarterbacks across the country.