Derron Smith is a humble person.
It started back when he played youth basketball, football and baseball.
His parents, Mike and Angela, knew that. Their son never showboated but was always confident about his abilities.
“He was a great baseball player — all he wanted to do is hit home runs,” Mike Smith said. “When he was 9, he didn’t want to play baseball anymore. He said it was too slow for him.”
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On the basketball court, he played for a traveling team in Upland, but he sat on the bench. No doubt Smith was upset about it, but he also persevered through it. He continued to play basketball and football at Banning High, and made his mark by averaging 17.0 points per game as a starting point guard.
“By the time he got to high school, he was skilled,” Mike Smith said. “When he was little, he liked to hit people. It was in his comfort zone. Natural thing. There was some negativity of his tackling, but he was a sure tackler.”
Through it all, Smith, who as a Fresno State senior last fall had to deal with a hernia injury, could be the first Fresno State player taken during the NFL draft, which begins Thursday in Chicago.
Angela Smith remembers seeing her son being too aggressive when he was young.
“It’s been a long, interesting journey. He learned a lot along the way,” she said. “He was a little aggressive with the bat. With football, it was like a relief. It helped out a lot with letting out his anger, I guess. He always loved the game.”
Smith felt football was better suited for him. After all, the average height in the NBA is 6-foot-6. He stuck to football and shined for Banning High. Smith was the team’s quarterback, safety and punter — pretty much doing it all. He finished his senior season with 109 tackles.
Then came the recruiting trips. But most, including Nebraska, wanted him to play cornerback. Smith didn’t want to and felt the safety position was better suited for him.
Pat Hill agreed.
“My plan for him from the beginning was to play safety for the Bulldogs — and free safety was the spot I thought he would really excel,” the former Fresno State coach said.
Smith committed to the Bulldogs, and Hill said he felt like his program had scored thanks to Smith flying somewhat under the radar.
“If he played at Long Beach Poly or Mater Dei, he would’ve been one of the most highly recruited athletes that year in Southern California,” Hill said. “We were very fortunate that not a lot of people made the trek to Banning High School to watch him on film or to watch them play basketball.”
Like former Bulldogs safety Phillip Thomas — who is entering his third season with the Washington Redskins but who was a quarterback at Bakersfield High — Smith had “great instincts for the game and his awareness of what was happening on the field was outstanding,” Hill said.
Smith’s play also reminded Hill a lot of Tyrone Culver, a former Bulldogs free safety who played in the NFL for six seasons with the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins.
Playing through an injury last season for the Bulldogs, Smith finished second on the team with 93 tackles, one interception, eight pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.
“He’s a guy who sacrifices personal discomfort for the good of the team,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We never ask anybody to sacrifice their own safety or health. When you play this game of football there are a lot of times you’re nicked up and say ‘I feel like going.’ But it sends a message to your team that when you’re feeling that way, you fight through — and succeeding when you do that inspires everybody around you, and that’s the kind of person Derron is.”
Smith finished his four-year Bulldogs career with 304 tackles, 15 interceptions and four sacks. He also had kick return duties all four seasons.
“Having sports to lean on and two strong parents,” Smith said, “that definitely kept me out of trouble and led me to an opportunity to play at Fresno State and get my degree, which I have in communications, and on the verge of living my dream playing in the National Football League.”