Rod Smith Hoping Return to Where it Started will Be Fresh Start for his Career
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thirty-three yards.
Photo by Jim Davidson
That’s all it took for Rod Smith to see the light at the end of the tunnel he had been desperately searching for since he arrived at Ohio State as a highly-touted freshman out of Indiana back in 2010.
“It felt good to be recognized for being a help to the team, whether that’s on special teams or offense,” Smith said after his highlight-reel 33-yard touchdown run against Nebraska on Saturday night.
“Any type of way, it just feels good to be involved.”
Involved is about the last way Smith’s existence at Ohio State would have been categorized as recently as a few weeks ago. Despite the fact he looks like the second-coming of Eddie George in a Buckeye uniform, Smith had basically fizzled out during his first two years in the program.
He was headed for the exit sign and Urban Meyer was holding the door.
“The conversation in January is ‘You’re probably not going to make it’,” Meyer said recently.
“‘It’s probably best you move on and play somewhere you can play, because it’s obvious you’re not good enough to be here.’”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Nobody actually believed that, not even Meyer himself. Forget the fact Smith was one of the top-rated tailbacks in his entire recruiting class, or the fact he could move in and out of traffic unlike many high school running backs in the country.
While Meyer was new to the program in January, many were familiar with the fact Smith had shown glimpses of unstoppable athletic ability early in his career.
“It was well overdue, but I was happy it came at the right time in a big game like that,” Smith said this week.
“A lot of teammates were just happy to see me do what I’m capable of.”
The stories of Smith’s uncanny running abilities have poured out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center over the years, but when he finally got his chance to carry the football as a redshirt freshman last season, Smith couldn’t hold on to it.
“At the beginning of my career I used to let that get to me a lot. It used to haunt me a lot,” he acknowledged this week.
“My coach (Stan Drayton) has been telling me to let stuff go and move on and just get to the next play. I feel like I have been maturing a lot. And that’s been a big part of my game that I have improved.”
There was really only one way for Smith to go when Meyer took over the program back in January. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to get a fresh start under a new regime, but Smith managed to take the opposite approach. It started with missing the plane ride to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.
“When he didn’t make the trip to the Gator Bowl, I don’t know what the kid was thinking,” teammate and fellow running back Carlos Hyde said.
“He was probably one of the guys who you would say didn’t buy into the system. Like, ‘I’m not really into it yet,’ but he changed his mind. He got into it. He realized if he really wants to make something happen around here, he needed to do more.”
It certainly took him long enough. Instead of leaving, even after Meyer had a sit-down with Smith's father and other important members of the family in January, Smith decided to stick it out with the program.
He wanted to give it another shot with his teammates in Columbus, but Smith never really gave the new coaching staff a chance to win him over.
“When you’re coming from a different style of the way the program was being run, it took a little time to get used to,” Smith said Wednesday after practice.
“For some people, it’s still taking us some time to get used to. It took me a while, but I started to see the big picture. When you want to get on the field, you have to buy in.”
That was something Smith says he didn’t really understand until this season. As in after spring practice, summer conditioning, and even after fall camp. When he found himself No. 3 on the depth chart behind Hyde and true freshman Bri’onte Dunn, Smith finally realized it was a do or die moment for his career at Ohio State.
“I don’t think it was a specific day, but at some point in time you’re not playing and you’ve got to find a way to get on the field,” Smith said with his quiet, laid back demeanor.
“I just had to show it more in practice. I’ve been doing that and I got my chance to show what I can do it.”
After rushing for 24 yards and a touchdown against UAB a few weeks back, Smith had the biggest carry of his collegiate career Saturday night against Nebraska, and it came on his first offensive play.
"We didn't just say lets hand the ball to Rod and see how this works out,” Meyer said.
“He did it in practice. He earned the right to carry the ball. It’s great for young guys to see it and it’s great for older guys who maybe aren’t playing as much. Rod Smith is a great story. I couldn’t be more proud. Rod Smith is doing well in school, so it’s great for him to have some good experiences right now.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time for Smith, who really proved himself to Meyer and the coaching staff by embracing his role on the punt block team. He has only 14 carries on the season, but with Jordan Hall unlikely to play Saturday, Smith has a chance to get on the field and make an impact in the one place he’s been waiting to shine.
“It means a lot more to me,” the Fort Wayne native said of playing Indiana University in Bloomington under the lights.
“Going back to Indiana, to get that feel and just have some of my family members and friends at the game. It’s going to be really fun to play there.
“I am going to have the whole city there. There’s going to be a lot of people there who haven’t seen me play. They haven’t seen me play since high school.”
Back then, Smith was a superstar. He carried the football 1,000 times during his high school career and set the SAC conference career rushing record with 6,625 yards with 66 touchdowns. He was also all-conference in basketball and ran on the state runner-up 4x100 relay team.
Today, Smith is just hoping his big run will help him recapture some of that old magic.
“Hopefully it gives them an extra thought in their mind that they have another running back who can possibly take it the distance,” he said.
“Maybe loosen up the carries on Braxton (Miller) or Carlos. I’m just a weapon right now waiting to be used.”
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