Watch now: How boxing and baseball help Illinois safety Derrick Smith on the football field


Either position would have been fine for him, and Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said the two positions are very similar in his system. 

“I like being around the ball,” Derrick Smith said. “They figured safety was the best position for me because of my athleticism. I can play either. It doesn’t really matter to me. If I’m around the ball, I feel like I’m going to be able to make a big impact.”

He’s drawn rave reviews from Lovie Smith as well as defensive backs Tony Adams and Sydney Brown for his play from last season on the scout team to this season in practices. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and figures to be a part of a deep position group that also includes Brown and Adams.

“Been impressed with him early on,” Lovie Smith said of Derrick Smith. “When you have to sit out a year, you’re anxious to play. We’re expecting a big hitter to give us a little bit of a different dimension there. I think about the last 15 years I’ve been in the program, I’ve started about five safeties. We need all hands on deck.”

Or, as Adams put it: “He’s kind of like a freak because he’s a big guy, 6-2, (220) playing back there at safety. He moves very well. He’s picking up the defense kind of like a freak. Great player. I think the biggest thing you see, even without the pads, is he’s going to bring it every time. You can just hear it, the way he speaks, the way he talks just a fearless approach. You kind of like that as a player.”

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