TAMPA -- Chris Smith will never forget his first Arena Football League game.
The defensive back was thrown into the Tampa Bay Storm's starting lineup and found himself caught up in a frenetic pace he never experienced during a lifetime of outdoor football.
Forced to cover receivers who are allowed to go into forward motion from deep in the backfield before the ball is snapped, Smith compared it to trying to catch a shooting star.
"The hardest thing was staying in my backpedal longer while I am covering a receiver," Smith said. "You are guarding someone who is already running full speed before anything happens and you better get in that backpedal quick and be able to stay with it for a long time."
Heading into the Storm's 14th game of the season this weekend, Smith has shown he is a quick learner. Despite missing two games due to an injury, he was tied for second in the league with eight interceptions and led the Storm with 55.5 tackles.
Smith's knack for adjusting to the game is well documented. Since his high school days at Palmetto, he has overcome odds of being too small to play the game of football.
Nobody wanted him out of high school, and Smith had to play junior college ball before earning a scholarship to Northern Illinois. He was not drafted, but earned a spot on the St. Louis Rams and played in three games until an injury made him expendable.
Storm defensive backs coach Doug Kay, who has been in the AFL for 16 years, marvels at how fast Smith picked things up and calls him the most productive defensive back in the league.
"It's totally different than the outdoor game, especially for a defensive back because they are nearly always playing man to man," Kay said. "There is not a lot of pure man coverage in the outdoor game. In the indoor game, the small field size does not allow you to scheme the secondary, and you wind up in a lot of man coverage. It's harder to cover a receiver because the outdoor game is built on help. The only thing you have here is 'Our Father ... .'"
Smith said Arena ball has made him a better defensive back and helped him develop a short memory, a necessity to play defense in this league. Kay credits the 25-year-old with a strong work ethic that has accelerated his progress.
"The goal for us is to keep teams from scoring 45 points. If we do that we will be good, but in this game you are going to get scored on and you just have to go on to the next play," Smith said.
Working against his former Palmetto teammate and Storm receiver Joe Hills and former Southeast quarterback great Adrian McPherson in practice has helped.
"Joe is a tall, quick receiver with good hands, and AD knows the game, knows who he is throwing to and most likely it's going to be on the money. You have to go against him like you are in a game," Smith said.
Kay says Smith has the intangibles, but also what is needed physically to be a successful defensive back in a league where scoring 60 or more points is common.
"Certain (outdoor) players cannot play defensive back in this league because they don't have that burst of speed and hip movement that allow you to make quick turns. Chris has all of those things," Kay said. "Learning that constant backpedaling is hard because in college there are not many true backpedalers, but Chris does that perfectly. The thing he has to overcome is his impatience. A lot of defensive backs in our league try to figure out when a receiver is going to make a move. You have to learn to be patient and ready for when the receiver runs the final stem of his route."
Smith's physicality, especially for someone his size, is impressive, and he gets most of his interceptions the tough way, according to Kay.
"In nearly all of his interceptions you find that he is taking the ball away from the receiver, and that is the hardest interception to make. He does that probably better than anyone in our league," Kay said.