TAMPA — Rick Smith is in his 30th season as a college football coach, but he can't ever remember a defensive back getting into the opposing backfield as much as Jon Lejiste has in USF's first four games.
"In my career, this is the most we've ever blitzed the safeties," said Smith, the Bulls' defensive backs and assistant head coach. "The coordinators I've worked for felt like, 'Let's bring the guys that know how to blitz and let the cover guys cover.' But we're doing it a lot more here, and it's worked. I like it."
Lejiste, the starting strong safety, leads USF with three sacks — and two forced fumbles on those plays — and only one defensive back in Division I-A boasts more sacks than the quiet, always-smiling sophomore from Delray Beach.
"I really enjoy it. As long as Coach keeps calling blitz, I'm going to keep trying to make plays," said Lejiste, 20, who trails Utah cornerback Lamar Chapman (31/2 sacks). "I'm very happy, but I'm looking forward to getting more, too."
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has called Lejiste's number in key situations. Early in the second half at Florida, when the game was still 7-7, Snyder blitzed Lejiste, who hit Gators quarterback John Brantley and forced a fumble inside the Florida 20, though the Gators were able to jump on the loose ball.
When Western Kentucky intercepted B.J. Daniels in the final minute of the first half two weeks ago and was on the USF 12-yard line, threatening for a tying touchdown, Snyder sent Lejiste again. He forced Kawaun Jakes to fumble, dropping the Hilltoppers back 11 yards, helping force a long field goal that was missed.
And last week against Florida Atlantic, Lejiste set the tone for a physical pass rush, getting the first of what would be seven sacks, matching a USF record. A friendly rivalry has emerged among the team's pass-rushers up front and the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Lejiste, who also has 12 tackles.
"We're not going to let that last too long," end Craig Marshall said Saturday, laughing. "He's in the right place at the right time, and when we're calling blitzes, he's doing it right. But we're coming for him."
Lejiste, who had 29 tackles and one tackle for loss last season while mostly coming off the bench, said he'll gladly cede the team sack lead to the bigger guys on the line.
"I don't want to lead the team in sacks. That's their job," Lejiste said. "I'd rather get interceptions."
That's easier now. Lejiste played the first three games wearing a cast on his right hand (broken ring finger) that limited his catching abilities. The cast came off for Saturday's game, and his coaches are ramping up the accountability.
"He dropped one last week with his cast off. I could have caught that one," said the 62-year-old Smith.
As much as anyone on USF's defense, Lejiste has earned a reputation as a hard hitter, which goes back to last year's win at Florida State, when Lejiste forced the first of five fumbles by leveling Seminoles running back Tavares Pressley, knocking him off his feet to land face-first on the turf.
"I try to be known as the hardest hitter on the team," Lejiste said, never breaking from his smile. "Every time I see a running back break the line of scrimmage, I have intentions of laying a hard hit on him."
Earning that title requires a combination of mentality and technique, and coach Skip Holtz said that while his entire secondary has the attitude, Lejiste's form is what might allow him to stand out as a punishing hitter.
"I would say he's our hardest hitter in the secondary," Holtz said. "Those guys will all come up and hit you, but from a fundamental standpoint, in his base and his hips and his pad level, Jon would be our hardest hitter."
Snyder said Lejiste's play reminds him of another safety who liked to blitz, former Ohio State star Mike Doss, who had six career sacks with the Buckeyes under Snyder before being drafted by the Colts.
Lejiste can also respect the work of USF's other hard hitters. Ask him about freshman Mark Joyce's hit against FAU — the opposing helmet flew into the arms of Bulls linebacker Sabbath Joseph — and he beams with pride at Joyce, who was paired with Lejiste in training camp in a "big brother" mentoring program.
Lejiste knows part of a successful safety blitz is stealth, in not showing anything until that last split-second, and that appreciation for secrecy goes back to his childhood, when his favorite movies were always the spy thrillers. That's his future as much as his past: He's majoring in criminology and wants to work for the FBI after college.
And while Lejiste gets credit for his sacks, he knows it's not possible without a lot of help. If USF's cornerbacks can't handle man coverage, the coaches won't have the confidence to call the blitz. The defensive linemen have to stunt at the right instant to lure blockers out of the way and create the opening Lejiste will shoot through, and a linebacker must drop back in coverage to fill the hole left by Lejiste's absence.
"As long as all that happens," he said, "then I can come free and I'm set."