August 22, 1998
TURLOCK - Listening to senior safety Marquis Smith talk, the operative word is "now." As in now is the time to be a leader, now is the time for Cal to come together as a team and now is the time to win.
Smith has always been known as a big hitter. At 6-3, 220 pounds, he is an imposing force in the defensive backfield. Last season, he totaled a team-high 72 tackles, including 12 each against both Arizona State and USC, and at the end of the year, he was awarded Cal's Big Hit Award. In 1996, Smith ranked second on the Bears with 89 stops. Even going back to his days as a prep, he was noted for causing 13 fumbles during his career at Patrick Henry High School in San Diego.
But that is all in the past, and for Smith, there is no better time than the present. As a senior defensive back, Smith has taken it upon himself to add more of a leadership role.
"I try to set an example," he said. "The seniors are the ones who try to be the leaders, so now it's time for me to fill those shoes. I need to be a positive role model. If I do something bad, it can carry over to the others."
With perhaps sophomore cornerback Chidi Iwuoma the lone exception, the rest of Cal's DB two-deep is comprised entirely of juniors and seniors, players who are familiar with each other and the Cal defensive strategy. In their second year under coordinator Lyle Setencich, they are coming together as a unit and are molding into one of the strengths of the team.
"Now, we're comfortable with the system and can just react because it's like second nature," Smith said. "It doesn't seem like we're learning something new and have to stand back and analyze during a play. We're familiar with who is doing what where. Before, you just remembered what you did. Now, you know what everybody around you does."
That lack of aggression contributed to Cal's having only four interceptions all season in 1997. The Bears also surrendered 37 passes of 25 or more yards. But with a veteran backfield, Smith believes he and his teammates will be able to take more chances without giving up the big play. The difference now is that players know when they have a backup and can make a move for the ball as opposed to either trying to make plays on their own with no one behind them or not making a play at all.
With nine total starters returning, Cal's defense as a whole should start off the year as the strength of the team. And their play during 10 days of fall camp on the Stanislaus State campus has only confirmed those expectations. But according to Smith, the potential for Cal's defensive unit has not even been approached.
"I notice a lot of good things happening now," Smith said. "We're making the quarterback scramble around a lot now. No one is open, so they have to run around. Before, we really didn't do that. It's like night and day out there. You can clearly see the difference now.
"So far, our camp has been a good camp, and that's going to carry on into the season," he added. "Last year, we didn't really start coming on strong until around the fifth game. We still allowed big plays, but we improved as a defense as the season went on. Now since we've had a strong camp, I think coming into the first game, we're going to be solid and improve from there. We're going to start off strong and just get stronger. That's the way I see it happening. That's the way it has to be."
For Marquis Smith, there is no better time than now.