After waiting patiently on the practice squad for the entire season, safety Fish Smithson was finally activated to the 53-man roster earlier this week before the final two games.
For the past 15 weeks, safety Fish Smithson has practiced with his Redskins teammates during the week and then watched them play a game on Sunday, cheering them on from his home. This is the standard ritual for practice squad members, and one Smithson likely won't have to experience again this year.
The Redskins placed safety Montae Nicholson on Injured Reserve earlier this week and called up Smithson to the active roster in a corresponding move. For the final two games of the season, Smithson will suit up preparing to play an opponent other than his teammates.
"[It's a] good Christmas bonus for him and hopefully he can help us," head coach Jay Gruden said with a smile.
Smithson has certainly deserved to have one. Until this week, Smithson held the rare distinction of being the only player to have stayed on the practice squad for the entire season, a feat that is remarkable mainly because of the amount and variety of injuries the Redskins have experienced this year.
With injuries come reshuffling. Practice squad members that play positions dealing with deficits must adopt the "next man up" mentality while others are waived – by no fault of their own – so that new players can help with depth chart vacancies.
This year the practice squad has seen massive fluctuation except for Smithson, who has been a steady presence helping on the scout team, just not needed on the roster with a relatively healthy safety group this season.
"It's hard to be on the active roster in the National Football League," Smithson said. "There's a thousand guys out there that wish to get the opportunity. I'm just grateful I got one."
Smithson's biggest highlight of his young career came in the preseason when he intercepted Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron and nearly returned it for a touchdown. Teammates mobbed him after the pick and the highlight stuck with Gruden.
"It was good to go out there and make that play just to show everyone my ability, what I can do," Smithson said. "Now hopefully I'm trying to go out there and do that same thing."
As the season has progressed, Smithson has been asked to play just about everywhere in the defensive backfield, mimicking opponents for upcoming games and getting a taste of every safety and cornerback position. His work on special teams has also caught Gruden's eye.
"He's learning," Gruden said. "I think his special team play out here has been improving on kickoff cover and some of the punt return stuff. He can help us in that regard also. But overall I just watch him move around, and when we do scout team, he's done some corner, he's covered the slot, he has played some nickel, he has played the deep safety, he's played the strong safety. So he has done a little bit of everything. I like his movement skills, his ball skills and I like just [his] overall knowledge of the game right now. I think he is a good player. He is a great project for us. We are fortunate to keep him on our practice squad this entire time and I'm glad that we had a chance to activate him."
Smithson, standing at 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds, recorded 263 tackles in three seasons with Kansas, along with 17 passes defensed and six interceptions. As a junior in 2015, Smithson led the nation in solo tackles (111), and recorded a team-high 93 tackles the following season. He played a little corner for the Jayhawks, he said, but the experience he's gained in the defensive backs room has been the biggest help to his game.
"You see the business side of things and how guys shuffle in and out, it just gives you a different perspective," Smithson said. "Every time I come in, I don't take [any relationship] for granted. You can't walk through the motions, you've got to come in and do everything you're told to do, and it's been good to have veteran presence in my DB room – Josh Norman, [D.J.] Swearinger, DeAngelo Hall, Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland, guys like that."
Come Sunday, Smithson expects to have some family members attending the game from Baltimore, where he was born. He'll provide them the Christmas gift of seeing him on the field for the first time in a regular season game.
"It's going to be crazy. A dream come true," Smithson said. "I always wanted to go out there, run through the tunnel. I'm going to soak it all up, enjoy the experience and give it all I got."