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GWINNETT GRADS: Central's Smith a playmaker for Samford

Special Photo. Central Gwinnett grad Bryce Smith has 10 career interceptions for Samford, just seven off the school record.

Special Photo. Central Gwinnett grad Bryce Smith has 10 career interceptions for Samford, just seven off the school record.

Christian Ponder’s pass was tipped and Bryce Smith swooped in to grab it, giving Samford’s football team early hope and a rare highlight in a lopsided loss to ACC power Florida State earlier this season.

There wasn’t much to celebrate after the 59-6 loss, but the senior linebacker made sure he stood out. He also had a team-high nine tackles in addition to the takeaway from Ponder.

“Whenever you intercept a pass from a Heisman hopeful, that’s in the record books, nobody can take that from you,” Smith said. “It definitely felt good.”

That feeling, of the takeaway, is one that the Central Gwinnett product has experienced more than most linebackers.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder has 10 career interceptions, just seven off the school record, held not surprisingly by a defensive back. Smith’s impact in pass defense is more than a typical linebacker as he led the Bulldogs in interceptions the previous two seasons — five interceptions in 2008 and four more in 2009.

“A lot of (my teammates) joke that I have a contract with the (opposing) quarterbacks,” Smith said. “I get in my drop and they throw it right to me. That’s what it looks like on the field.”

Smith’s work in defending the pass needed some honing after his career at Central, which relied on him to attack the A gap in a 3-3 stack defense. He pretty much was asked to run to the football.

He played sparingly as a Samford freshman, making 11 tackles, and then spent the following summer with his trainer, Earl Williams, on improvements in pass defense. It paid off immediately with five interceptions his sophomore season, adding another skill for a linebacker who already had the reputation as a fierce tackler.

Smith hasn’t slacked off in that area, either.

He’s made 264 tackles (183 solos) as a starter the past three seasons, earning All-Southern Conference honors the past two seasons.

He’s been Samford’s top tackler by far the past three seasons — his 63 tackles (42 solos) are 30 more than the No. 2 defender — and is coming off a career-high 17 stops in last week’s game with Elon. He currently ranks fourth nationally in tackles, a year after leading the nation in solo tackles per game.

He made 102 tackles (72 solos) as a junior and 92 (65 solos) as a sophomore.

The numbers aren’t surprising for Smith, a prospect who was overlooked by big schools during his high school career. Opposing coaches raved that he was a Division I-A linebacker, but the high-level offers never came. Instead he found Samford and became a star quickly, putting up gaudy numbers that should get him some attention from NFL scouts.

Reaching the NFL is Smith’s immediate goal as he aims to reach the level of his friend, Rennie Curran. The two have talked regularly since high school, when they bonded at a Daily Post photo shoot that had the two star linebackers arm wrestling.

Now Curran is playing with the Tennessee Titans, who took him in the third round of this year’s draft. He overcame questions about his height to reach the NFL. Smith’s challenge will be proving his exceptional play had nothing to do with playing a step below the NCAA’s top stage.

“Seeing (Curran) make it that way, it lets me know I can do that, too, no matter what school I’m at,” Smith said.

Smith has heard rumors about his draft position, but he hasn’t paid them too much attention. He’s focused on getting Samford to the playoffs.

After the season concludes, he hopes to work an externship at a local high school in Gwinnett. He finishes his course load in December and graduates in May after finishing the externship.

FOOTBALL

Quick hits

Making his first start for injured senior Andrew Hatch (formerly at LSU), sophomore Colton Chapple completed 6 of 11 passes for 82 yards and a score as Harvard defeated Lafayette 35-10 last Saturday. Older brother Lee Chapple, also a Greater Atlanta Christian grad, was 18 of 31 passing for 206 yards and two TDs in North Alabama’s 28-0 win over Arkansas Tech. ... Tuskegee freshman Christian Newsome, a Parkview grad, had eight rushes for 76 yards and a TD, two punt returns for 23 yards and a 21-yard kickoff return in last week’s 51-0 win over Miles.

Buford grad Justin Roper threw two TD passes and ran for a third score last Saturday as Montana beat Northern Colorado 30-7. ... Jaytee Swanson of Buford had two tackles, one for a loss, in Miami of Ohio’s win over Kent State. ... Melvin Harris, another former Buford standout, had two catches for 46 yards in Ole Miss’ 42-35 win over Kentucky.

Norcross’ Darius Hanks had three catches for 33 yards as Alabama defeated Florida 31-6. ... Cameron Heyward of Peachtree Ridge had six tackles, 1⁄2 a sack and 11⁄2 tackles for losses in Ohio State’s 24-13 victory over Illinois. ... Asher Clark, also of Peachtree Ridge, helped Air Force stop a seven-game losing streak to Navy last weekend. He rushed 14 times for 70 yards in the 14-6 win.

Though Vanderbilt lost 40-21 to Connecticut, two Gwinnett grads stood out. Freshman Jonathan Krause of South Gwinnett had a 44-yard TD run and two catches for 27 yards. Teammate Kennard Reeves, a Duluth grad, had three carries for 19 yards.

SOCCER

Watts named SEC’s top defender

South Carolina sophomore Christine Watts, a starter at right back, was named the SEC defensive player of the week on Monday.

The Peachtree Ridge grad led a stout defensive effort the previous week as the Gamecocks defeated Mississippi State 7-0 and Ole Miss 3-0. She also scored her team’s first goal vs. Mississippi State and added two first-half assists. She led a back line that held Ole Miss to one shot on goal, a desperation shot with one second left.

Teammate Maria Petroni of Buford had a goal and an assist in the win over Ole Miss, while North Gwinnett’s Danielle Au assisted the first goal.

Abrahart gets Peach Belt honor

Greater Atlanta Christian grad Samantha Abrahart got another reward for her breakout freshman season at North Georgia, earning Peach Belt Conference player of the week honors this week.

Abrahart had two goals and two assists the previous week to help the Saints to three wins and their first-ever national ranking at 25th in NCAA Division II. She leads the Peach Belt with 25 points and 10 goals.

She also ranks 13th nationally in total points, 14th in total goals and 19th in points per game.

Parkview battle in Conference USA

Parkview grads Blake Brettschneider and Kofi Gyawu battled it out last weekend, with Brettschneider’s South Carolina Gamecocks defeating Alabama-Birmingham 3-2 last weekend.

Brettschneider had a goal and an assist on the game-winner, while Gyawu had a goal and an assist for UAB. The 20th-ranked Gamecocks followed that game up with a loss to No. 8 SMU this past Wednesday 3-1, but Brettschneider had the lone goal.

CROSS COUNTRY

Mecheso wins race, earns Big 12 acclaim

Oklahoma State junior Girma Mecheso, a Berkmar grad, won the recent Cowboy Jamboree to earn Big 12 runner of the week honors.

Mecheso, whose teammate is former Grayson runner Kirubel Erassa, ran the 8K course in 23 minutes, 46.17 seconds, more than 20 seconds ahead of the runner-up. It was the first time an Oklahoma State runner had won the team’s home meet since 2003.

The Ethiopia native transferred to Oklahoma State from Auburn, where he was an All-American in cross country and track as well as the 2008 SEC freshman of the year in cross country.

Curry enters GSU record books

Georgia Southern sophomore Sara Curry, a Peachtree Ridge grad, posted the third-best cross country time in school history at the Charlotte Invitational.

Curry ran the 5K course in 18 minutes, 54.90 seconds, slashing more than 30 seconds off her previous best.

VOLLEYBALL

DeMarrais hits milestone, gets conference honor

Brookwood grad Kalin DeMarrais, a Piedmont College senior, recorded her 1,000th career dig last week in a victory over Covenant College, highlighting a week that earned her Great South Athletic Conference player of the week honors.

DeMarrais had 38 kills, 45 digs and five aces the previous week to earn the conference nod. The outside hitter leads Piedmont (10-8) with 166 kills, 239 digs and 25 aces.

Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting the achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via e-mail to will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com or via fax to 770-339-8081.