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A look into the career of Ryan Smith, Northwestern’s new cornerbacks coach

The Sky Team has a new co-pilot.

In the aftermath of a dreadful first season with Jim O’Neil at the helm, Pat Fitzgerald sought out some additional help on defense to coach the secondary, a unit that struggled for the ‘Cats in 2021 after excelling in 2020. The lengthy search concluded with the addition of Ryan Smith, who was previously the cornerbacks coach at Virginia Tech, to the coaching staff.

Smith was originally thought by most to be returning to Blacksburg, but the firing of Head Coach Justin Fuente, who hired Smith in 2020, led to his departure after two seasons. Now, Northwestern looks toward the young coach to significantly improve its secondary that allowed the highest completion percentage in the Big Ten at 67.1 percent.

The secondary coach draws his knowledge of the game from his experience and playing time on the field. Smith started 22 games at cornerback for William & Mary from 2010-2013, notching 47 tackles, a sack and a pick in his senior season. After he graduated, Smith spent 2015 and 2016 as a defensive graduate assistant for Penn State, helping coach a unit that won the Big Ten Championship in the latter year.

Upon getting his masters’ from PSU, Smith was hired to coach the secondary at Elon University. In the first year of his initial job, Elon’s defense surrendered nearly 250 passing yards per contest (11th out of 12 in the CAA), along with a conference-average 56.5 percent completion percentage allowed. Smith’s secondary improved significantly in year two, allowing 216.3 yards per game and a 53.6 percent completion percentage. Although the team statistics were far from spectacular, Smith coached three All-CAA defenders during his time at Elon.

Smith then spent one year at James Madison in 2019, when the Dukes went 14-2 and appeared in the FCS National Championship game. Smith coached solely the safeties, and played a part in coaching a Dukes defensive unit that ranked first in the FCS in total defense, second in third-down defense, and third in scoring defense. Additionally, JMU ranked seventh in the nation with 17 interceptions, 13 of which were notched by Smith’s safeties.

This brings us to Smith’s hiring at Virginia Tech, his first Power Five job since his time as a graduate assistant at Penn State. Prior to his first season in Blacksburg, Smith was named to’s 30 Under 30 list of rising college football coaches.

The young coach’s first year coaching at Virginia Tech was marred by injuries and COVID opt-outs (most notably that of future first-rounder Caleb Farley), and Smith’s largely inexperienced unit struggled mightily. The Hokies finished 2020 third-to-last in the ACC after giving up 266 yards per game and an on-average completion percentage of 61.7 percent. However, Smith’s unit once again improved in year two, decreasing its allowed average to 224.2 yards per outing and 59.2 percent completed from the field.

Aside from Farley, Smith coached high-caliber players such as Dorian Strong, who was recognized on 247Sports’ True Freshman All-America Team, and Jermaine Walker, who finished on the All-ACC second team last season, at Virginia Tech.

Smith is known in the coaching ranks as an effective recruiter, and his impact was felt immediately at NU after Garnett Hollis, who returned to Evanston after initially entering the transfer portal, told Wildcat Report that Smith played a role in his decision to stay. As for on-field impact, the addition of Smith will likely take a little stress off of O’Neil’s shoulders and may see current defensive backs Coach Matt MacPherson move to strictly coaching the safeties. While most of Smith’s units haven’t particularly shown out on the stat sheet (aside from that fruitful year at James Madison), he has helped develop plenty of talent and there should still be plenty of optimism that he can improve the atrocious defense from a season ago.

After all, how much worse can it get?