UNI football: Smith continuing to perfect craft

UNI’s Elerson Smith trips up Idaho State quarterback Gunnar Amos during a Sept. 21 game in the UNI-Dome.

CEDAR FALLS — University of Northern Iowa defensive line coach Bryce Paup remembers the “deer in the headlights” look Panther defensive end Elerson Smith had as a redshirt freshman.

These days, it’s opposing quarterbacks getting a little wide-eyed when the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Minneapolis native comes off the edge for UNI’s defense.

After being a tremendous third-down asset for the Panthers a year ago when he was second on the team with 7 1/2 sacks, Smith announced early and often this season that he had taken his game to a new level.

In UNI’s first three games, Smith recorded 7 1/2 tackles for loss and five sacks. He finished the regular season with 18 TFLs and 13 sacks, which rank as the sixth and seventh best totals in Panther history.

“It has been an amazing transformation,” Paup said. “Especially since I got back in the fall of 2018. When I first got here he looked like a deer in headlights.”

Paup also saw a player who wanted to get better and was willing to put in the extra time to do so.

“This year he actually decided he wanted to be good,” Paup added. “He comes up and watches film with me every day. He took it upon himself to get better. You can try to make them want it, but until they want it … they may be okay, but they never will be great.

“Elerson is starting to get to the point where he is not satisfied. It has been fun to watch. You go back and watch his first week or two to now and he is complete different.”

Smith has recorded at least one TFL in nine and has recorded sacks in eight games, including a season-best three against Idaho State.

“We have come a long ways, not just me specifically, but the defensive line as a group,” Smith said. “I can’t do anything with my teammates. Every sack that I get is because the line has gotten a great push. The defensive backs and linebackers have been tight in coverage and strong in assignment.

“There is so much into making a sack on third down. It’s never an individual thing.”

Smith finished the regular season with 54 tackles, and has been credited with eight quarterback hurries and three pass break-ups. He has also forced five fumbles, which is tied for sixth best in program history and one off the record set by Paup (and tied by four others since) in 1987.

It’s been a process, Smith said.

“At the beginning of the year, I really struggled with run fits,” he explained. “I couldn’t get my hips through. My first step was all over the place. That is where Coach Paup made sure I was coming in and spending time watching film with him and I’m so grateful for that.

“Then three-quarters of the way into the season it kind of clicked one day in practice.

“My hips came through, my feet felt good underneath me and that is a great feeling when you have been working on something so long and to actually see progress.”