Wake Forest Corner Talks -- and Plays -- a Good Game

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

GREENSBORO, Ga., July 20 -- In a room full of team-colored polo shirts and faces worn from answering the same questions over and over again, Alphonso Smith stood out Sunday at the ACC Football Kickoff.

Sitting across a circular table from teammate Aaron Curry -- who was decked out in Wake Forest yellow and black -- Smith held court in front of the surrounding media throng the same way he does on fall Saturday afternoons. He was insightful, reflective, excitable.

And save for a two-minute bathroom break, he never shut up. Smith explained nearly a dozen times how the last two seasons helped instill the Demon Deacons with a sense of legitimacy. He described almost as often what a positive impact Coach Jim Grobe has had on the program.

Each time, he made eye contact with the questioner; each time, he pretended he was hearing the question for the first time.

Smith, considered one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC, has developed a reputation as a yapper. Much like his flashy outward appearance -- pressed white collared shirt, gray slacks, diamond studs poking out of each ear lobe -- Smith's mouth sometimes overshadows his prolific talent and the intelligence that puts both to proper use.

"I remember watching film on him last year getting ready to play Wake Forest, and he's kind of a guy who stands out on tape," Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said. "He's a physical corner, and you always see him running his mouth. He doesn't shut up; he really doesn't. He's just one of those players. He loves to talk out there, and he has fun with it."

He didn't used to be so vocal, and his exploits on the field certainly weren't always as fun as a year ago, when he forced four fumbles and returned three interceptions for touchdowns en route to a first team all-ACC selection. In fact, as a redshirt freshman three years ago, Smith had little grasp of his team's defensive concepts. The free safeties would hold informal meetings to ensure everyone was on the same page, and Smith would be the only member of the secondary not to attend.

Then one day, defensive backs coach Tim Billings approached Smith with some words of wisdom. "As the game gets older for you," Smith remembered Billings saying, "you're going to see a shift."

As the season wore on, Smith realized Billings was right. It was no longer a matter of physical talent; everyone had that. What mattered was what you knew and how much time you were willing to put into knowing it.

In a way, Smith returned to his roots. As a kid growing up in Pahokee, Fla., Smith preferred watching his favorite team -- Florida State -- on television rather than in person. That way, he could hear all the commentators' remarks, see the replays and learn what was really going on.

As he spoke Sunday about the days when he was still allowed an allegiance to the Seminoles, his head bobbed, his eyebrows arched, his brown eyes bulged and his cadence quickened, the way it always does when he has a point to make.

Smith went back to watching film near the end of that redshirt freshman season, but this time not just of Florida State. Of the nation-leading eight interceptions Smith grabbed last year, he said six of them were because of mental preparation gained by time spent in front of the television. "I know what can hurt us and what can hurt me as a corner," he said. "That makes it so much easier; it helps you play so much faster."

Armed with a more complex knowledge of offensive formations and receivers' tendencies, Smith is better able to recover when his opponent gets the better of him.

North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said he relishes going up against Smith, in part because of how Smith responds when he is beaten on a play. "He's one of them type of guys that can talk the whole game and don't let it affect him," Nicks said. "Like, even if he get burned or get scored on, he gonna come right back like that never even happened."

A few tables over from Smith, Florida State quarterback Drew Weatherford took note of the Smith he had come to know through recent conversations.

"I'll tell you right now, and I never knew it until this week, but he is a complete student of the game," Weatherford said. "I always knew he was a great player, but I never knew how bright a guy he was."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company