UMHB Smith

Mary Hardin-Baylor safety Jayden Smith (11) is congratulated by teammates on Sept. 25 after his interception in the final minute preserved a 34-28 victory over Hardin-Simmons.

BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor safety Jayden Smith is sometimes overshadowed because he shares the defensive backfield with fellow senior safety and All-American Jefferson Fritz.

That’s not to say Smith, a senior from Ellison, hasn’t made his share of big plays, none bigger than ones in last spring’s American Southwest Conference championship game and last week’s come-from-behind victory.

The common denominator in both instances was the opponent — longtime rival Hardin-Simmons — perhaps for reasons unknown.

“Honestly, I don’t know why it’s always against Hardin-Simmons,” the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Smith said.

His latest game-saving play came last Saturday night, when the top-ranked Crusaders (4-0, 3-0) had rallied from a 28-7 halftime deficit and were clinging to a 34-28 lead as the Cowboys reached the UMHB 22-yard line with less than a minute remaining.

Smith saw quarterback Kyle Jones staring down receiver Rae Millsap, broke in that direction and snared Jones’ pass just before going out of bounds with 38 seconds left.

The stunning comeback was complete, and the celebration began.

“It just comes down to them throwing to my side. I feel like they don’t want to test Jefferson’s side,” Smith said. “They’re going to test me more because there’s an All-American over there. They don’t want to try it on him so they try it on me, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

Smith’s play last spring in the ASC title game was just as crucial, and it again involved Millsap and the Cowboys.

With the Crusaders trying to nurse a 23-7 lead in the fourth quarter, Millsap hauled in a Jones pass and broke free. He ran 61 yards all alone before Smith caught up to him at the UMHB 2. With no chance to keep Millsap from crossing the goal line, Smith punched at the ball with his left arm, sending it bounding through the end zone for a touchback.

“As soon as I got close enough to him, I punched it out with my left arm,” Smith said that day after the Crusaders lifted the league trophy. “I had no other chance to do anything else. I knew I had to do something to save us.”

Smith has consistently produced for UMHB — which visits Austin College (1-2, 1-2) this afternoon — after missing all of his sophomore season because of an injury, and he gives the credit to Crusaders defensive coordinator Larry Harmon.

“When I hurt my shoulder my sophomore year, they said I could still play and have surgery later. But Coach Harmon told me I was still young and should get the surgery right then. I did, and I’ve been listening to him ever since then,” Smith said. “He’s played a big part for me, not giving up on me when I got hurt and pushing me every year to get better.”

Smith is also fueled by the knowledge that teams will be more hesitant to throw the ball toward Fritz’s side of the field, meaning Smith and senior cornerback Keith Gipson — who shares the same side — are likely to get more passes in their direction.

Smith won’t go so far as to say it puts a chip on his shoulder, but he knows he has to be ready to make plays when opportunities arise.

“It does motivate me to show them that I can play, too. I don’t mind it, though,” Smith said. “I never have to question Fritz’s side, because I know he has that taken care of. So now it’s just me and making sure I have my side taken care of with Keith. We have to make sure we help the defense all we can on deep balls.”

So far, so good for Smith — especially against Hardin-Simmons.

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