E'Monte Smith

E’Monte Smith (32) has a team-high five sacks for No. 2 UMHB, which hosts Howard Payne at noon today.

BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor E’Monte Smith will do just about anything to keep improving as a football player. Whether that means changing positions or trying some alternative training methods, he’s all in.

“I’m dedicated to this team,” said Smith, a senior who was recruited as a linebacker but was quickly moved to defensive end so his pass-rushing skills could be better utilized. “We pride ourselves on defense here, so I’m a product of my environment.”

His environment has produced a player who routinely sets up camp in opposing backfields. After leading the Crusaders in sacks and tackles for losses in their last full season in 2019, Smith again has a team-best five sacks and ranks second with 11½ stops behind the line of scrimmage heading into today’s game between No. 2 UMHB (8-0, 7-0 American Southwest Conference) and Howard Payne (6-2, 5-2) at Crusader Stadium.

It’s a matchup that has Smith licking his chops.

“Howard Payne wants to throw the ball around, so that makes it fun for the defensive line,” he said with a smile. “I enjoy playing defensive end because I like to get sacks. That can be game-changing when you do that. I pride myself on being able to get to the quarterback.

“Aside from winning, sacking the quarterback is the greatest feeling on the field. It’s even better when you can get the ball out. I haven’t done that yet this season, but I’m still plotting to do it.”

In order to reach the quarterback, though, Smith first has to rid himself of an offensive lineman whose sole job is to keep the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Pflugerville Connally product as far away from the passer as possible.

Smith relishes the challenge and has honed his skill set in a variety of ways, including taking up wrestling halfway through his high school career to help improve his hand-to-hand combat skills in close confines.

“Now I can just run right at them and try to create some separation so I can get off the block as fast as possible, dissect the play and go make the play,” he said.

While wrestling taught him how to use his hands against oncoming blockers, he took his training a step further last summer when he dabbled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu — a martial art based on ground fighting in which opponents use a variety of techniques to gain a dominant position.

“I’ve tried a lot of things. I even worked this summer a little bit with some Brazilian jiu-jitsu, working on how to get leverage and use leverage. I only did it for about a week, but it was rough,” Smith said. “It helped me learn how to get those offensive linemen off of me.”

Opposing offenses, beware.