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Safety measures

Jets’ unusually brainy Smith often leaves opponents smarting

The Jets’ Eric Smith will be going every which way on defense and special teams in the third meeting with the Patriots. The Jets’ Eric Smith will be going every which way on defense and special teams in the third meeting with the Patriots. (File/Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — There are times, usually in July and August, when Eric Smith wonders whether he should have taken the ivied option when it was there and made a different living with his cranium.

“When training camp comes around and you’re getting tired of being out there, you’re like, ‘Man, I should have gone to Harvard,’ ’’ said the Jets’ soft-speaking, big-stick strong safety.

Harvard was interested in him. So was Yale, whose recruiter came to his house in Ohio after a basketball game and showed him a highlight film. Dartmouth and Cornell were intrigued, too.

“Then I got offered by Michigan State and I thought, ‘I can’t turn that down,’ ’’ Smith said.

So he spent five years as a Spartan, sitting out the first with a knee injury, and ended up here, where he has become the go-to guy on all questions academic. Nobody else in the locker room can spell “punctilious’’ and use it in a sentence, as Smith did this year.

“He’s a very intelligent guy,’’ confirmed fellow safety Brodney Pool. “If you ask him a question, 99.9 percent of the time he’s going to be right.’’

Yet Smith is known more for his concussive qualities, most notably his terrifying helmet-to-helmet hit on Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin two years ago that earned him a $50,000 fine and a one-game suspension and became a YouTube classic. Smith apologized to Boldin, who needed facial surgery, just as he did to Patriots receiver Wes Welker after a lesser head shot in their first meeting this season brought a $7,500 fine.

“It wasn’t like I intentionally was trying to hit him like that,’’ said Smith as he prepared for Sunday’s third encounter with New England, this time with the season on the line. “I was just going for the ball and next thing I know his head’s right there.

“I know they have a big emphasis on helmet-to-helmet, so I was keeping my head out of it. I ended up hitting him in his head.’’

Smith knows only one way to play, which is why he’s the coaches’ film-room favorite.

“He works as hard as you can imagine every single play,’’ said special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff. “You’d swear it’s Sunday afternoon. I pointed it out to everybody in the meeting. Here’s why it happens on Sunday for him. It’s just incredible to watch.’’

Smith knew after he came for a predraft visit in 2006 that the Jets viewed him primarily as a special team kamikaze, but he figured that he’d eventually work his way into a starting spot in the secondary. Then when Rex Ryan took over as head coach last season, Smith was hearing that he might be expendable.

“I knew when Rex came in that he had his guys, and I didn’t know if I was one of his guys,’’ Smith said. “So I had to work and show him that I could play the football he wanted. The style he wanted to play was exactly what I wanted to do.’’

Ryan kept him around, and when Kerry Rhodes was benched late in the season, Smith stepped in.

“I always prepare like I’m going to start,’’ he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.’’

Nobody would have predicted that Jim Leonhard would break his tibia in a freak practice collision with backup receiver Patrick Turner three days before the December rematch with New England. Suddenly, Smith found himself making the secondary calls.

“Smitty always knew the defense, but he didn’t have the command and control,’’ said safety Dwight Lowery. “Not that he couldn’t. He just didn’t have to.’’

But Smith is nothing if not a quick study. After his high school quarterback went down for the season, Smith mastered the triple-option offense in little more than an hour and took over.

Smith’s knowledge base is so impressive that the team limits his participation in “Jeopardy!’’ games in camp.

“They’ve got me pegged as this smart guy,’’ he said, wryly. “I’m only allowed to answer one question. The spelling thing, I was only allowed to go up one time.’’

This is the man Ryan says is “too smart for football,’’ who once sprung “parallax’’ on the coaches.

“Trying to make an excuse for why I messed up,’’ said Smith. “It got me out of it.’’

His command of the dictionary hasn’t kept Smith from putting his brain cells at risk. He had barely undertaken his expanded duties when he sustained at least his third concussion against the Dolphins and had to sit out the showdown with the Steelers. But that hasn’t made him shy about sticking his noggin into the mixmaster.

“You can’t think about it,’’ Smith said. “I feel like if you think about something like that, you’re going to be a little hesitant about tackling and you’re more likely to get hurt. Those are things that sometimes just happen randomly. You can’t worry about them. You just go out there and put it behind you and think about it afterwards.’’

His instinct always has been to throw himself at whatever’s moving and let physics decide the outcome, especially on special teams.

“I like contact,’’ Smith said. “Any time I get down there and mix it up with somebody — linemen, running backs — it’s fun for me.’’

There’s just enough chaos theory involved in kicking plays to appeal to Smith’s desire to operate unleashed and unhesitant.

“The only hesitation you’ll see is from the guys in the other uniform,’’ said Westhoff. “They hesitate when they see him coming. That’s my guy.’’

He’s the defense’s guy, too, which makes for a bit of tug-of-war for Smith’s services come Sunday.

“It puts Rex in a tough spot because he’s got Westhoff going to him saying, ‘Hey, he’s my best special teamer, I’ve got to have him out there for every snap, it’s the playoffs,’ ’’ said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. “And we’re saying, ‘Hey, Rex, you’ve got to get him off some special teams, he’s one of our key defensive guys.’

“There’s always that conflict going on. But he’s such a good athlete and in such good shape that it’s hard to justify taking him off of anything.’’

Smith doesn’t mind being ubiquitous. He can do it. Better still, he can spell it.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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