PULLMAN – In his first season as a Washington State starter, Chau Smith-Wade has quietly emerged as a Cougars star, a Pac-12 standout and one of the most proficient coverage cornerbacks in the nation.
It’s not always easy to tell. After all, quarterbacks usually opt against throwing in his direction – especially at this point in the year, with Smith-Wade’s receiver-blanketing talents no longer a secret.
But analytics compiled by Pro Football Focus shed light on Smith-Wade’s exceptional campaign. The junior is WSU’s top-rated defender, per PFF’s grading system. Smith-Wade is the Pac-12’s highest-graded cornerback (84.5) and PFF’s No. 7 cornerback nationally in coverage grade (85.5).
“Consistency is always the goal,” Smith-Wade said, “and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent throughout the season.”
The site considers grades of 85 or above to be NFL-caliber marks.
Through nine games this season, Smith-Wade has allowed just 21 catches for 196 yards and one touchdown.
“Chau’s been phenomenal,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Wednesday. “I don’t even think he’s to his ceiling yet, and that’s an awesome place to be.”
Smith-Wade earned a season-high single-game PFF grade of 90.4 – the sixth-highest grade among all defenders in the country last weekend – during the Cougars’ 52-14 rout of Stanford. He bottled up Cardinal receivers, yielding four catches for less than 15 yards and batting away two passes. Smith-Wade forced fumbles on back-to-back Stanford possessions in the second quarter with well-placed punches. The Cougars recovered both and turned the takeaways into touchdowns.
An adept open-field tackler, Smith-Wade is seventh among WSU defenders with 35 stops, including 2½ behind the line of scrimmage. The 5-foot-11, 184-pounder has a team-high five pass deflections and one interception this season.
“I’ve always said that I’m reckless, but relentless with that recklessness,” Smith-Wade said when asked to define his high-motor playing style. “You can see the speed and being able to use my footwork to get into position. I know the game so well that I can utilize my speed and footwork and get into position.”
Considering the numbers, Smith-Wade is rarely out of place. He admits there have been some slip-ups in coverage, but those sporadic mistakes aren’t costing the Cougars.
“If you go back to the film, there’s times when I’ve been out of position, but the quarterback hasn’t thrown it,” Smith-Wade said. “I guess you could call it luck, or because of the previous times, when I am in position. They know I’ll be there and that gives them doubt.”
Before the season, it was uncertain whether WSU would have a lock-down cornerback this year after losing CB Jaylen Watson to the NFL draft following the 2021 season.
Smith-Wade has settled into that role after performing admirably last season as WSU’s No. 3 CB.
“I had to learn that my time would come,” he said. “I had to wait my turn, obviously with Jaylen Watson here and being behind Derrick Langford. I really enjoyed watching those guys and I was happy being the No. 3 under those guys. They were the ceiling of being some of the best cornerbacks I could have.
“I was learning from them and I felt like I was going to be good going forward. I didn’t always have this confidence, but learning from those guys gave me confidence.”
In his third year at WSU, Smith-Wade has adopted expanded leadership responsibilities and is giving the Cougars’ young CBs, as he said, “somebody to look up to, setting the standard of what it is to be the top corner.”
Of his breakout season, Smith-Wade said it was simply a matter of time. Experience breeds confidence, and Smith-Wade looks comfortable as could be playing one of the most difficult positions in football.
“Not one of the hardest positions. It is the hardest position,” he said. “We’re moving backward the whole time. It’s very hard. You gotta have a short memory. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to focus on the next play and you gotta be able to switch it up and you can’t dwell on that play.”
He seems to have the right attitude for a CB. Smith-Wade describes his personality as “nonchalant.”
“I don’t let anything get to me,” he said.
Dickert saw Smith-Wade take significant strides in “maturity” and “mentality” between seasons.
“We’ve always known Chau’s talent and obviously we recruited him to come here,” Dickert said. “We always knew this could be the result and this is the result we wanted. But I think he’s made better decisions in every facet of what he’s doing. He’s taking the nutrition part of it more seriously and I think he’s getting the results. I’m just excited with his progress. I think Langford is now playing at the level we felt like he could and Chau has really elevated his play.”
Smith-Wade is spearheading a WSU secondary that has surpassed expectations this season and has sustained its success throughout the back half of the year.
The Cougars’ pass coverage hit a low point during a Week 4 loss to Oregon, giving up nine passing plays of over 20 yards. WSU has surrendered just 16 such plays across five games since, allowing only 11 passes of 20-plus yards over the past four games.
“Communication, being on the same page, being better at the little things, the adjustments and just executing,” Dickert said of his defense’s progress in the passing game. “That’s been a big part of our success defensively. When you make (opponents) go the long, hard way, we have been proving to be able to stop people.”
WSU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) will need another solid effort from its pass coverage Saturday when it hosts Arizona State (3-6, 2-4), which has accumulated 784 yards through the air across its past two games.
“They want to run the ball, but at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of success scoring points – 30-plus points in three of the last four weeks – by taking the ball down the field,” Dickert said. “That’ll be a big part of this game.”
Smith-Wade, Langford now flipping
For the first eight games of the year, Smith-Wade played every snap on the left side of the field while Langford lined up on the right. But the Cougars cornerbacks are being asked to switch sides depending on matchups.
“We just started flipping, during the Stanford game,” Smith-Wade said. “It was something that (first-year CBs coach Ray Brown) saw that we can do to be more successful.”
Path to Pullman
Born in Denver, Smith-Wade moved in with family members in Chicago as a teenager. Seeking exposure in the sport that he first started playing at age 3, he enrolled at Simeon Career Academy, a high-profile athletic school.
Admittedly undersized, Smith-Wade made a name for himself early in his prep career with an aggressive playing style.
“I was only 160 (pounds), but I was like a pit bull,” said Smith-Wade, who earned an all-league nod as a running back and garnered all-state honors as a DB after his senior year at Simeon.
Division I offers began to roll in after his junior season. The three-star recruit originally chose Wyoming – where Dickert was defensive coordinator – over eight other suitors. But Dickert accepted the DC job at WSU in January 2020. Several other Cowboys assistants joined him, including CBs coach John Richardson, who had recruited Smith-Wade.
Smith-Wade decommitted from Wyoming and pledged to WSU less than a week later. He served on special teams and played sparingly on defense as a true freshman in 2020, then climbed the depth chart ahead of the ’21 season.
“Ever since I came to Washington State, this has been the goal,” Smith-Wade said. “I just stuck with it. I gotta give it to the coaching, whether it was coach John Richardson my freshman year or coach Ray Brown now. I feel like coach Dickert has done a phenomenal job getting cornerback coaches that can elevate my game.”
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