UNI Panthers

Elerson Smith finds his place on UNI's deep defensive line

College football: Panthers host Lamar in FCS playoffs Saturday

North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick (12) is sacked by Northern Iowa linebacker Rickey Neal Jr. (7) and defensive lineman Elerson Smith (47) during their Missouri Valley Football Conference game Oct. 6, 2018, at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick (12) is sacked by Northern Iowa linebacker Rickey Neal Jr. (7) and defensive lineman Elerson Smith (47) during their Missouri Valley Football Conference game Oct. 6, 2018, at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — When Northern Iowa has played its best football this season, as many as eight defensive linemen have played an integral part.

One of the eight defensive linemen in position coach Bryce Paup’s rotations is Elerson Smith. As far as non-starters go, the redshirt sophomore has been the biggest statistical beneficiary of Paup’s situational rotations, registering 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and a number of quarterback hits, hurries and pass breakups for the Panthers (6-5).

When asked about his emergence this season, Smith didn’t hesitate to provide an answer.

“I think having Coach Paup back is an amazing blessing that I’ve had as a player,” Smith said. “He’s been so amazing with the knowledge that he’s lent us having played so many years in the NFL at a high-level. Also, Coach (Mark) Farley this year has helped me a lot and given me trust to be able to do what I can. It took a while for me to earn that, but, now, since earning that trust, he knows I can do my assignment and do what’s best for the team.”

Smith says Paup has raised his game both mentally and physically. His repertoire of pass-rush moves has gone from three to six and his ability to watch and productively evaluate film has improved immeasurably. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end says his favorite move has been his speed rush, adding that it’s been effective in setting up his other moves.

“(Elerson) can kind of clear the edge, and he’s got a good enough get-off right now that he’s causing some people some problems.” Farley said earlier this season. “And he’s also a good counter to Rickey (Neal) on the other side.”

Paup’s utilization of up to eight defensive linemen each game has its obvious benefits. Most importantly, UNI’s defensive front stays fresh and still has pass-rush moves to unveil late in games. Another benefit, Smith says, is the in-game communication that goes on between the group.

“In games, I think we all just have a switch that we can flip where we’re locked in (and) nothing can get to us,” Smith said. “We do a great job communicating what’s happening out there. (If) we’re getting different looks, we’ll come back to the sideline, I’ll talk to Rickey Neal, see what type of looks he’s getting, so when I come in, I can try and work off what he’s already done.”

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With Lamar (7-4) on tap at the UNI-Dome at 4 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs (ESPN3), Smith’s pass-rush may have to take a backseat. The Cardinals’ run-pass ratio is 70-30, so the Minneapolis native says tackles for loss could be considered this week’s “sacks.”

“We have to be really disciplined in playing our gaps,” Smith said. “And not trying to be too special in making a play when that isn’t needed at the time. You can help the team more by doing what is asked of you (against) the run game.”

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