Every freshman wants to come in and immediately be incredible. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but sometimes it does. Even if James Smith doesn’t play what many would consider a premium position, he was one of those guys that dominated from the jump. Yes, you’d rather have a wide receiver or a defensive end breakout early, but having one of, if not the, best punter in the American Athletic Conference isn’t meaningless.
Smith, who is built like a small forward (6’5”, 225 pounds), hails from Wangaratta, Australia where American football is obviously not the biggest deal. Smith took over for Sam Geraci, who was a fine punter in his own right, and helped the Cincinnati Bearcats have the best punting unit in the conference last season, with a net average of 41 yards per punt. Smith averaged 42 yards per punt by himself, and also had 21 kicks land inside the 20-yard line. His 64 punts were more than anyone else in the entire conference, which isn’t surprising considering UC’s struggles on third down and with moving the ball on offense overall.
One of his busiest games of last season was when he punted the ball 10 times against Michigan. However, he only averaged 37.3 yards per kick in that contest. His best (is best the right word?) game of the year came against East Carolina, he averaged more than 50 yards per attempt on six punts, marking one of two games in which he averaged at least 45 yards. He booted a career-long 65-yard punt in that game, helping to add to his total of nine 50-yard or more punts for the entire season.
Smith is an easy preseason pick to return to the All-American Athletic Conference first team. His ability to help UC with the field position battle is vital, especially for a team that is still finding itself offensively. Even if the Bearcats improve in that area (and they should), they will always have Smith to bail them out when things go south.