A humble Braden Smith in position to be starting safety
LARAMIE -- Braden Smith doesn't like to use the word "battle" when it comes to the competition between himself and Rome Weber for the last available safety spot.
The senior is soft-spoken and talks in team-first tones only.
When asked how different it is to face this version of the Cowboys' offense under Tim Polasek in practice compared to Brent Vigen's, Smith looked around the room, smiled, and declined to answer.
He's toeing the company line. In-house secrets are safe with him.
Maybe Smith doesn't like to use the word listed in the first sentence because the synonyms are conflict, fighting, hostility, and many other unpleasant words.
That's just not his style.
"I'd rather call it a friendly competition," he smiled. "I love Rome. I have a lot of respect for him and I know he has respect for me, too. So, right now, it's just whoever is going to help the team get better or help the team more in that aspect."
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This isn't the first friendly competition between these two. In the spring of 2019, Smith was atop the depth chart. That fall, however, a hamstring injury hampered him throughout camp, cracking the door for the redshirt freshman from San Bernardino, Calif.
In the end, Weber got the gig. He started 12 of the Cowboys' 13 games, registering 38 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception from the free safety spot. Smith started one game. That came against Idaho in Week 3. He finished with 11 tackles and a pick.
The coast was all clear for Smith last fall.
Weber, along with five other Cowboys, decided to sit out the 2020 season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Smith got the starting nod alongside fellow senior Esaias Gandy in the Wyoming secondary.
In just six games, the 5-foot-10, 191-pound Colorado product tallied 23 tackles. He also finished with a sack and an interception.
It wasn't always easy for Smith, who took plenty of blame for Carson Strong's 420-yard passing performance in the season-opening overtime loss to Nevada, but his coverage abilities and support in the run game improved each week.
"I felt way faster than I than I felt before," Smith said. "The first game against Nevada, I'm not going to lie, it was pretty tough. It was just a lot of things like not having fans in the stands there. Just all that stuff. But, after that, I kind of got my feet underneath me."
Smith may have declined to speak about his current situation with Weber, but head coach Craig Bohl didn't.
"Well, there's a battle that I think Braden is separating himself in," Bohl said Tuesday evening. "(Smith is) a little bit injured right now, but he's had a couple of really good scrimmages. Rome has done OK and certainly has improved, but right now, I think that there's a separation between the two."
Last week, UW's defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel called Weber's return to the field a "work in progress." He added that playing the safety position is not one where you can typically take more than a year off and expect to be the same reactionary player. Not to mention, Sawvel's offense is still new to Weber, who didn't play in Sawvel's first season in Laramie.
As we saw in 2019, though, an injury can change things in a hurry.
So, just how important is the starting role to Smith?
"It's my last year, for sure," he said, referring to the NCAA ruling that allowed all players to suit up for an additional year because of the virus. "So, you want to go out with a bang. But, I don't want to sit here and talk down about Rome or anything like that. You know, we're both really good athletes and whoever he decides to start, that's what it is and it's going to be. That's the best thing for the team."
Would being the starter on opening day be a good thing? Sure. But for Smith, just being able to play in a Wyoming uniform again is what really counts.
"Honestly, I love the coaches and I love the guys here," he said about taking advantage of the NCAA's ruling and returning to Laramie. "It's kind of a no-brainer. I feel like for me, personally, if I quit I felt like I would let them down. So, if I could, I'd do another six years here."