Around the Eastern Washington football program, it is clear how much Anthany Smith means to the team.
On the field, in his career he has returned an interception for a touchdown and also has made 17 tackles in a game. He was chosen this year as one of the team’s four captains.
Yet he has also played just 32 of a possible 47 career games for the Eagles, having lost most of sophomore year to injuries to his labrum and eye socket, and then portions of the spring and fall 2021 seasons to other injuries.
But Smith – who wears the heralded No. 4 on Eastern’s defense – is hoping that this year can be different, and that he can play every game on the schedule for the first time since 2018 and that he can help lead the Eagles back to the playoffs.
Eastern’s season continues Saturday, when the 15th-ranked Eagles (1-1) host the fourth-ranked Montana State Bobcats (2-1) at Roos Field in Cheney in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
“It’d mean everything,” Smith said of playing another full season, “to be able to show my talent and what I can really do.”
The No. 4 jersey at Eastern carries a unique distinction, and for the past 15 years the coaching staff has selected someone who embodies the traits of grit, toughness, effort, leadership and academic success to wear that number.
Last season it was safety Calin Criner, and last spring the coaches picked Smith to wear it this fall.
“You know who Anthany Smith is within five minutes of practice,” EWU safeties coach Zach Bruce said. “He’s dancing around, high energy, communicating, speaking, talking. … If nothing else, he’s probably the most high-energy guy on our team.”
The Eagles have employed a safety rotation this season that mostly includes Smith, junior Ely Doyle and senior Keshaun King. In their defense, Bruce said, safeties are taught to play both sides of the defense, giving them more positional flexibility, so the Eagles use those three in various pairings.
“In our defense, they’ve got to be able to do pretty much everything,” Bruce said. “They have to be able to blitz, they have to be able to cover, they have to be able to play as a linebacker at times, play the middle of the field.
“They’ve got to be one of our best overall football players, and Anthany is that.”
Having missed as many games as he has due to injury – when he missed games at the end of his sophomore year, Smith said, he couldn’t do a push-up, a sit-up or even ride a bike for a year – Smith turned more of his focus to mastering football schemes.
That shows up in meetings, where Smith asks tough, “very high-IQ questions,” Bruce said. “That’s what makes him the player he is.”
Smith made his debut last season in the Eagles’ Oct. 23 game against Weber State and played in six games overall (starting five), making 38 tackles and forcing one fumble. Heading into the season, Bruce said it was clear that the team needed to play more safeties earlier in the year, and they have done that.
It might deflate their individual tackle numbers – through two games, Doyle leads the team with 15, Smith has 10, King nine – but the goal is to keep them all on the field deeper into the season.
“We know (other) guys need to play 10, 15 snaps,” Bruce said. “We got to that last game last year and (Criner) and Anthany (Smith) were hanging by strings.”
The game at Montana State, which comes after a bye for Eastern, will test an Eagles defense that gave up 29 points and 547 yards to Tennessee State in Week 1 and then gave up 70 and 604 one week later against the Oregon Ducks.
Tennessee State hurt the Eagles for a series of big plays, and that at least was something the Eagles corrected in the 70-14 loss to Oregon: The Ducks’ longest offensive gain was 39 yards.
“The breakdown honestly just came down to executing and tackling,” Smith said. “That’s what it was for us. We were making plays and getting to the ball; we just weren’t finishing on the ball, and they executed better.”
Rested and playing a fellow Big Sky team instead of one from the Pac-12, the Eagles will work to correct that against an offense that, while it is missing its top three running backs, has averaged the second-most yards of offense (465.7) among Big Sky teams this season.
For Smith – whose first name is spelled with an ‘A’ because his mother didn’t want people to call him “Tony” – it is an opportunity for the Eagles to protect the Red turf of Roos Field and to play a rival, which always “means a little bit more,” he said.
But then, every game for Smith seems that way.
“My love for the game is bar none,” Smith said. “I’m going to go until the clock hits zero and I’ve got no more time. I’m going to (play) until I can’t go no more.”
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