December 14, 2024 | The Historic Cramton Bowl

Glance background 1
Team 1 Logo
Team 2 Logo
Glance background 2

December 14, 2024

9:00 pm ET/8:00 pm CT on ESPN

Montgomery, Alabama




Posted December 21, 2023

By Tim Gayle

He doesn’t lead the team in tackles and he isn’t up for any all-conference honors, but Arkansas State coach Butch Jones knows who is the most valuable player on his team.

Eddie Smith hasn’t even started every game in his career, but the sixth-year defensive back has a national championship ring and a pedigree that commands instant respect.

“The first day I stepped on campus, I was a leader,” Smith said. “Everyone looked up to me because I had been in college so long and I’m the only one on the team that’s won a national championship so I know what practice should be like and a lot of things about football.”

Smith and the Arkansas State Red Wolves (6-6) will close out the season in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl against the Northern Illinois Huskies (6-6) at Cramton Bowl on Saturday morning. For the Slidell, La., native, it’s a journey that took him to the University of Alabama and Illinois before finally winding up in Jonesboro, Ark., reunited with Jones, the coach who had once tried to recruit him to play at Tennessee.

“We had a relationship previously before I got to Alabama, then when I got to Alabama he was an analyst and he always joked around with me,” Smith said. “That’s where we built our relationship. I’ve been close to him since 2018. (At Arkansas State), it’s been really good, everything that I could have imagined. I wanted to come here and help Coach Butch Jones out because we had that previous relationship. When he recruited me, he told me how bad he needed a leader, he needed to build up the culture and I knew I could do that.”

When Smith was a high school senior, he wasn’t thinking about a future at Arkansas State. Recruited to play for national champion Alabama, he joined a secondary group that included future NFL players Jalyn Armour-Davis, Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain.

“It was really fast for me, the game speed going from high school to Alabama, so it took me getting used to that because I’m playing with guys that are as good or better,” Smith said. “It always felt like I was just a snap away. Always. But that’s what I signed myself up for, going up against that talent and playing with people that are really good. I knew what I was getting into.”

He played on special teams in seven games as a freshman in 2018, but just one in 2019 and two in 2020. The Tide won another national title and Smith got a ring, but he felt it was time to move on.

“It was a blessing to win a national championship,” Smith said. “I was playing a lot of special teams but I wanted to contribute more and feel like I was a part of it. So I wanted to transfer and go somewhere where I would get more playing time. So I went to Illinois for a semester and I didn’t really like it there. It was really cold there and I played a lot of special teams there, too. And I was playing corner and I really wanted to play safety.”

He checked with Jones, who had just concluded his first season with the Red Wolves. Jones knew the value of a player with Smith’s background.

“He came in our second year, but (he’s) an individual who speaks your language, understands the expectations and all that goes into it,” Jones said. “Eddie’s one of the highest character guys there is. We’re extremely close. He’s over at my house all the time. My wife has to keep cookies and cream ice cream in the freezer for him all the time. But just having someone like that, with that character, someone who has experienced football at the highest level and won a national championship, that really helps you.”

Smith was brought in to provide help in the secondary. But more than that, he was brought in to provide leadership in changing the culture. This year started with a 73-0 loss at Oklahoma, but the Red Wolves won three of their final five games to achieve bowl eligibility, a first since playing in the Camellia Bowl in 2019. Smith feels like he has helped point Arkansas State in the right direction.

“It’s a surreal moment,” he said. “I’ve been playing football since I was 5. I’m grateful I was able to go to college for free and I’m grateful for being able to go to three universities and contribute to all three universities. It’s definitely a blessing. It’s coming down to the end, so I definitely want to go out with a bang.”

For some players, that would mean a game-changing play, a key interception, a crucial defensive stop. For a player brought in to change the culture, Smith only has one thing on his mind.

“I want to win,” he said. “We’ve got to win. I don’t want to leave this program 6-7. I wanted to come in here and change this thing around. Knowing I was able to get us in a bowl game when this team had won just three games the year before and two the year before that, that’s my goal.”