Fish Smithson has been a leader on the field his entire career. Spending most of his playing days on offense, the former quarterback had the natural abilities to be the voice of a team even when he switched sides of the ball.
Making the jump from college to the NFL, Smithson had to spend his first season with the Redskins adjusting from being the captain to the pupil.
After one season absorbing information about the faster speed of the pro game, the 24-year-old looks to build off of 2017 to contribute to the defense heading into training camp.
"Last season was kind of learning curve, sitting there and learning from guys in the meeting room," Smithson said. "[D.J.] Swearinger, Deangelo Hall was a great role model to me last year. It was good to get that year under my back."
A Natural Leader
Spending the 2012 season as Navy Prep's offensive colonel, Smithson decided to switch to defensive back full-time in order to excel at the next level. His athleticism and leadership caught the attention of Hartnell College, a junior college in Salinas, Calif., to play safety even though most of his attention was throwing the ball in high school.
What the safety carried over to Hartnell, however, went beyond his athletic ability. His leadership characteristics shaped the Panthers on the defensive end, translating the instinctive ability to head an offense over to a new position.
Assisting the Panthers to a 9-2 record and a conference championship in 2013 as a mentor on the field, the 5-foot-11 safety earned JUCO All-American honors and caught the attention of the University of Kansas. Eventually signing with the Jayhawks at the end of his freshman season, the coaching staff expected Smithson to carry that personality on and off the field over to the Division I level to change the team chemistry.
"JUCO was definitely a set at home," Smithson said. "It was great to get that experience and I felt like you going to become who you become at junior college. That was the thing and I went out there and became a Division 1 athlete."
'Everything that I did with our team went through Fish'
Smithson easily proved that he was someone to watch during his first season at KU, becoming the Jayhawks' fifth leading tackler during his sophomore season. With a new head coach, David Beaty, arriving in 2015, the former Texas A&M wide receivers coach needed someone to rely on to guide the younger athletes.
With only three players having previous Big 12 game experience heading into the 2015 season, the Baltimore native quickly made an impression on Beaty with his charisma and his ability to create a positive culture involving the team. The way Smithson interacted with everyone, including people in the Lawrence community, stood out to the Jayhawks and resulted his team voting him as a team captain during his final two collegiate years.
Beaty admired the fact that he came from a background of proving that he deserved the spot he was given while doing it with a smile on his face. Smithson's character along with his social skills made the eventual All-Big 12 first-teamer an easy choice for the first-year head coach to lean on.
"Everything that I did with our team went through Fish," Beaty said in a phone interview. "He and I basically ran this team together. We did that because I had a trust for him that he thought about it like I thought about it. He had the pulse of the inside locker room that it's almost impossible for a coach to have. That's why it's so important to have great leadership on your team. He was so well respected that if Fish walks up to you and says, 'Hey take that towel out of the back of your pants,' there's not going to be any talk about that."
Not only did Beaty go to Smithson to be a voice in the locker room, but he also came to him when discipline was needed. Kansas' football program had a uniform policy in place that all players had to follow in order to participate on Saturdays.
When Steven Sims Jr., decided not to follow this policy for his homecoming game at Texas, the team captain agreed with his head coach to not take him to Austin. Without one of their top wide receivers, KU lost 59-20.
While Smithson is no longer teammates with Sims, his leadership in that moment changed the current senior on the Jayhawks.
"If you talk to Steven Sims today, who's a terrific kid [and] he was a freshman and it was a very teachable moment, he'll tell you that changed his career and changed his life," Beaty said. "A lot of that had to do with me and Fish working together. It was tough on Fish because we felt like we had a chance to beat those guys...Fish's leadership during that moment was critical. He was a guy that I ran everything past and I thought that was a really defining moment for us as a team."
Check out the whole Redskins offseason roster in photos as of June 14, 2018.
Not only did Smithson be a role model to the younger guys, but he also assisted the junior college transfers that arrived at KU adjust to the Division I level. Coming from Highland Community College in Kansas, DeeIsaac Davis arrived in Lawrence wanting to take a starting spot immediately.
With Smithson taking a similar road to KU, he advised Davis that it would take a tremendous work ethic in practice in order to reach his goal. Taking the safety's advice to heart, the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference member played in all 12 of KU's games and started 10 of them during his first year at the Division 1 level.
According to Davis, the players responded to Smithson's leadership because he arrived early, left late and "handled business." As a leader, the two-year team captain never yelled at his teammates whenever they were doing something incorrect. Instead, he demonstrated what the correct way was himself and that resulted in the rest of the defense following his lead.
"When I got there and I was fresh and I was looking around at other guys trying to compare myself, he just told me, 'Dee this is a process that you have to go through in order to get to where you want. To reach that highest level, you have to really work hard,'" Davis said in a phone interview. "I think that because of his experience in junior college and how many junior college guys come to KU, he was a great team captain to have because he led by example. He wasn't one of the guys that would bark at you if you were doing something wrong. He would do it so well that it made other guys want replicate it and work hard like he does. He just did it by example and it was a great experience to have him as a captain."
The Redskins picked up Smithson as an undrafted free agent in the 2017 offseason, quickly going from a leader to a listener. He took up as much information about the NFL game as he could from the veteran defensive backfield, converting that knowledge on the gridiron.
In the Redskins' third preseason game of the 2017 season, he came down with a red-zone interception against the Bengals that helped Washington to a 23-17 win. Although he made early impressions as an undrafted free agent, Smithson was assigned to the team's practice squad to start the regular season.
Staying patient with the process, he received an opportunity to be promoted to the active roster during the team's final two games of the regular season last year. Carrying that same mindset into offseason workouts, the first-year safety is still soaking up as much instruction that can help him succeed in game-like situations.
"I really, really like our safety group," defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. "You've got Fish Smithson, [Quin] Blanding, guys who are trying to learn and come up. I really like our guys. Those young guys kind of eat up those [veteran] guys' information and stuff like that. "
Changing roles is not new for Smithson, who had to face a similar challenge when he switched from offense to defense full-time. While Smithson has embraced the leadership role throughout his career, he's content with having the opportunity to grow under the guidance under some of the best defensive backs in pro football.
"It's a great opportunity," Smithson said. "I look at it like I have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. That's kind of how I look at it. I'm an underdog story...I can just go out here, take one day at a time and let the chips fall where they need."