MADISON, Wis. — If everything had gone according to script, Devin Smith wouldn’t be here right now. Maybe he’d be pursuing a professional football career or enrolled in business school somewhere down south.
Instead, a broken left foot put his life on hold for another year and kept him at Wisconsin. Not that he views that situation as a problem.
“In a way, I see it as a blessing,” Smith said.
This season, he is a fifth-year senior for the Badgers and has become a vital contributor as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. He has amassed 29 total tackles with five pass deflections and registered the team’s first interception of the season last week.
It’s an opportunity he wasn’t supposed to have.
Smith was a senior last season when he suffered a season-ending broken left foot in the second game of the year against Oregon State. He had maintained his redshirt season in case he sustained a serious injury, and the decision paid off.
Smith, a 5-foot-11, 186-pounder from Coppell, Texas, believes he has become a better football player as a result of staying another year.
“I got a lot smarter, a lot more mature,” Smith said. “I became more of a student of the game, understanding certain things. … My sophomore year, I’d watch film but I wouldn’t know what I was watching, really.
“This being my fifth year, I know what I’m looking for, understanding what I’m watching, why I’m watching it and understanding the overall concept of the defense and what we’re trying to get done.”
Wisconsin came into the fifth game of the season as one of only two teams along with South Florida not to have recorded an interception. Smith put a stop to that skid when he jumped an out route against Illinois during the second quarter last week. Wisconsin trailed 7-0 at the time and scored five plays later to tie the game.
“After you get that one, it’s kind of like the ice breaker,” Smith said. “You’re not trying to force another interception to come. After that first one, I feel like you just go out there, play your game and have confidence.”
The interception represented the type of playmaking ability that was lacking in his absence during critical losses last year against Michigan State and Ohio State. In fact, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema went so far this summer to suggest the Badgers would have finished undefeated in the regular season if Smith had remained healthy.
During his weekly press conference on Monday, Bielema hinted that NFL personnel had already expressed an interest in Smith’s talent.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” Bielema said. “Devin is very quick. He’s very athletic. Very intelligent, a business school guy that’s going to graduate here and have a business degree from the University of Wisconsin. That doesn’t just happen to everybody.
“He’s kind of got all the intangibles. If he can keep it together, he is going to have an opportunity at the next level.”
Of course, Smith has been far from perfect this season. He gave up a touchdown against UTEP and readily admitted to missing a few tackles against Oregon State — a game Wisconsin lost 10-7.
“When he’s not good is when he doesn’t focus on the little things that make the difference,” Badgers secondary coach Ben Strickland said. “I think he understands that and the reasons he’s had success is he’s been practicing better because he’s been paying attention to those details that make the difference between being good and great.”
Smith is savoring the few remaining months of college football he has left. He is taking just one class to finish his undergraduate degree in business management and will graduate at the end of the fall semester. Afterward, he said he intends to move back to the Dallas area to be closer to his mom, who is battling Crohn’s Disease.
He’ll train for a pro football career, and if it doesn’t materialize, pursue a Master of Business Administration degree.
If the past year has taught Smith anything, it’s to always have a backup plan.