Former Riverdale High standout Hakeem Smith is now the starting safety at No. 18 Louisville, and considered one of the top defensive backs in the country. (Special Photo)
RIVERDALE — Hakeem Smith entered the season with some high expectations, and the former Riverdale High standout certainly hasn’t disappointed for No. 18-ranked Louisville.
A starting safety, Smith has been one of the key contributors for the Cardinals’ defense.
“I’m very pleased at the season so far,” Smith said recently via cellphone. “I’ve been able to make some plays and help this team.”
In seven games this season, Smith has 27 tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack to go with two interceptions.
He entered the season on the “Watch List” for two postseason national honors. Prior to the start of the season, he made the Jim Thorpe Award watch list, which is awarded to college football’s best defensive back. The fifth-year senior was also named to the Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards lists that honor the best defensive players.
“It is a great honor to be considered for these awards,” Smith said. “I didn’t come into the season seeking personal recognition. My whole goal is to help this team get better and play in a big bowl game. I just want to stay humble and keep playing at a high pace for our team.”
The Cardinals had climbed to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll before last week’s 38-35 loss to Central Florida at home ruined their homecoming and its 100th game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium before a crowd of 55,215. It was the team’s first loss since last November to Connecticut.
“You can’t live in misery or live in a loss,” Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater told sportsillustrated.cnn.com. “We are the type of team that has mature guys and I am pretty sure our guys are switching their focus to South Florida. One loss doesn’t determine the whole season.”
Louisville will try to get back on pace this weekend when it travels to Tampa to take on South Florida in a conference game. Despite last week’s loss, Louisville has six wins and is bowl eligible.
“When I first got here, we were consistently fighting to make it to a bowl,” Smith said. “I’m pleased that we are at the point were we don’t struggle to become bowl eligible. Coach (Charlie) Strong has done a great job since he has been here. This really shows how far this team has come.”
Smith has arrived earned his degree in sports management. He said if he doesn’t get a shot at playing professional football, he will likely return to school for his graduate degree.
“It is a great feeling having your degree,” he said. “That is the main purpose that you go to college. That college degree is priceless.”
Last summer, he returned to Riverdale to mentor some current players. They consider him a role model for getting his degree and also being considered one of the top players in the country at his position.
“Yes, that is something you have to look up to,” Riverdale High senior wide receiver Rashad Canty said. “He is a pretty cool and down to earth person.”
Smith said playing in the NFL is definitely one of his goals beyond his college playing days. Several draft experts have him rated among the top safety eligible for April’s draft.
“It is something that is in the back of my mind,” Smith said. “It would definitely put a big smile on my face hearing my name called on draft day. I still have a ways to go, but I’ve always wanted to play in the NFL.”