By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– On the University of Virginia football team, the promising cornerback in the No. 23 jersey, Heskin Smith, bears an uncanny resemblance to Shawn Smith, the swift wide receiver who joined the program in the summer of 2017.
There’s a good reason for that. They’re one and the same.
Born Heskin Lashawn Smith in Brunswick, Ga., he avoided using his given name as a boy. It wasn’t a common name, and Smith worried that classmates would tease him if he used it, so he went by a shortened version of his middle name.
But after his first year at UVA –– Smith redshirted during the 2017 season ––he decided, at the suggestion of an academic advisor, to start using his given name.
Plenty of people still call him Shawn, including teammates and coaches, but on the Cavaliers’ roster and his social media accounts, he’s Heskin. The name comes from his father’s side of the family, which has roots in the Bahamas, and that’s how Smith introduces himself to strangers.
By any name, Smith has emerged this month as an important member of the Cavaliers’ secondary, which has faced a series of season-ending injuries to key players, including cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Darrius Bratton and safeties Brenton Nelson and Antonio Clary.
The injuries have “forced guys to have to grow up fast,” said Hall, an All-America cornerback in 2018.
Those guys include Smith, who had been playing primarily on special teams before hurting his right knee in UVA’s fifth game, a Sept. 28 loss at Notre Dame. The injury required arthroscopic surgery, and the 5-11, 175-pound redshirt sophomore missed the Wahoos’ next four games, a stretch during which Hall and Nelson were lost for the season.
“I just had to stay motivated while I was recovering,” Smith said, “just coming to the meetings and letting my brothers know I’m still going to be here and when I come back I’m going to give it my all.”
A couple of days before Virginia’s Nov. 9 game against Georgia Tech, Smith returned to practice. His knee held up well, and UVA’s medical staff cleared him to play against the Yellow Jackets. Smith didn’t start but ended up playing extensively after junior safety Chris Moore left with an ankle injury.
“It was fast-paced, because I haven’t really played that much,” Smith said. “But I’d been preparing for my opportunity and my chance, for times like that.”
Smith wasn’t perfect in Virginia’s 33-28 victory, but he’s better for the experience he gained, co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said Wednesday.
“I thought he did some good things for us,” Poppinga said. “He had a couple mental errors that cost us late in the game, but [those are] great things to learn from, right? I would say that Bryce Hall went through the same learning curve when he was a freshman, getting beat and giving up certain routes he shouldn’t be giving up. I think sometimes the best way for a guy to transition and progress is through learning from his mistakes. I feel like [Smith has] learned from them, and I feel like he’s had a great week of practice.”
The Hoos had a bye last weekend, which allowed Smith and his fellow defensive backs to get extra practice reps.
“Depth is really important down the stretch,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “One player makes a huge impact on our roster, as it does on most rosters, especially for us in our secondary. So we were able to target that position, work on specific things to address it, improve it, make it more cohesive. [Smith] was right in the middle of that effort.”
Two regular-season games remain for Virginia (7-3 overall). The first is Saturday at noon against Liberty (6-4) at Scott Stadium. Moore is available, and Smith is listed as junior De’Vante Cross’ backup at boundary cornerback. But Cross has also been playing safety in recent weeks, and Smith is likely to have a significant role against the Flames, who have a prolific passing game.
“The young DBs have to step up and contribute to the team,” Smith said, “even though Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson and Darrius are not here. We still have to step up for the team regardless. We’re all a brotherhood.”
UVA (5-2 in ACC play) closes the regular season next Friday against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. A victory over Tech would clinch the Coastal Division title for the Hoos and send to the ACC championship game.
“These are critical games, and I’m very excited to be out there,” Smith said. “I’m just ready to get out there on the field to show my teammates and show the fans that I can really play this game and contribute to the team.”
Is he nervous? Smith shook his head.
“I’ve been playing this game ever since I was a little boy,” he said. “It’s the same game, just a different environment. You just can’t be nervous.”
Brunswick is a small city about 70 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla., not far from the Atlantic Ocean. At Brunswick High School, Smith played quarterback as a junior and then put up big numbers at wideout as a senior.
“It’s crazy, because I played one series of DB in my whole entire high school career,” said Smith, who was a sprinter on the track & field team at Brunswick High.
Virginia recruited him as a receiver, and that’s where he practiced during the 2017 season. In 2018, however, the coaching staff moved him to the secondary about two weeks into spring practice. Smith appeared in eight games last season, playing exclusively on special teams, but he’s always shown the skills necessary to succeed at cornerback.
“He tackles really well,” Mendenhall said. “He plays the ball really well with his background at receiver, and he has good speed.”
Among the Cavaliers’ defensive backs, Hall is the lone senior. Scheduled to return in the secondary are such players as Bratton, Smith, Moore, Nelson, Cross, Clary, Joey Blount, Nick Grant, Jaylon Baker, Major Williams, Joseph White, Fentrell Cypress II, Tenyeh Dixon and Chayce Chalmers.
The group’s future looks “really bright,” Poppinga said.
Hall has long been a mentor to the team’s younger defensive backs, but he ramped up his efforts after an injury ended his season on Oct. 11.
“He’s always motivating and encouraging,” Smith said. “He’s a leader off the field, too. He took me under his wing, and I’ve learned about being a student of the game. It’s more than just trying to be an athlete and play. You’ve got to study the film and know everything about the team you’re playing.
“I was just kind of playing off athletic ability, and Bryce told me, ‘You can’t do that all the time. You just have to get into film study. Whether it’s 30 minutes or two hours, you have to get some film study in to know your opponent and know what you’re going against. You don’t want to go in there blindfolded.’ “
Hall said he believes “the biggest thing is having a focus and awareness when you’re out on the field. A lot of mistakes are made by young guys, not because they’re not playing hard or they’re not capable. It’s because of the mental focus and understanding of the game and what you’re going to get in certain situations.”
Smith, who lives with Bratton and another UVA defensive back who’s had health issues, Germane Crowell, is majoring in women, gender and sexuality. He said he’s enjoyed meeting fellow students from “outside of the athletic world.”
Football and schoolwork take up most of his time, but Smith enjoys fishing whenever an opportunity presents itself.
“I’m a country boy,” he said.
Sounds like Joe Reed, his teammate from the small town of Charlotte Court House in Southside Virginia.
Smith laughed. “Nah,” he said. “I’m not that country.”