In Twilight of his Career, Rod Smith Embraces Leadership

By Kyle Rowland on June 11, 2014 at 8:30a

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture, Rod Smith’s answer would be zilch. With one year left at Ohio State, he ran into academic difficulties during spring practice, ceding any momentum he may have gained on presumptive starter, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott.

As a veteran, though, Smith understands the current makeup in the backfield. His carries will come. Aside from that, there are lessons to teach and careers to impact. Smith realizes it’s now or never for himself and a time to pass on knowledge to the next group of Buckeyes.

“I'm focused on trying to get this starting spot, but at the same time being a big brother to these young guys,” the senior tailback said in March. “For the first time, I'm the oldest guy in the room, so I've got to help out and keep them out of trouble.”

Trouble is something Smith hasn’t been a stranger to at Ohio State. It came on the field his freshman season in the form of fumbling. Late in that forgettable 2011 season, Smith even moved to linebacker. He then missed the team flight for the Gator Bowl and never showed up in Jacksonville.

When Urban Meyer was hired, he invited Smith’s father to Columbus. Together, the three of them discussed transfer options, with Meyer going as far to suggest a change of scenery. Smith saw a different path – the same one he was already on. Leaving Ohio State was not an option.

“The conversation in January [2012] was, ‘You’re probably not going to make it. It’s probably best you move on and play somewhere where you can play, because it’s obvious you’re not good enough to be here,'” Meyer said.

A few months later, Meyer said he loved Smith. The admiration grew when he became a special teams contributor. But Smith was suspended for the 2013 opener after violating team rules. Meyer called it Smith’s “last call” and “11th hour.”

“He needs to perform,” added Meyer.

Smith was largely irrelevant throughout the season, compiling 117 rushing yards in six games. He never appeared after Purdue on Nov. 2. Then the shortened spring cropped up, so Smith began his leadership push. If anyone knows about squandered talent, it is Smith. 

In the first game of his career, he rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown, spurring comparisons to Eddie George. Handling success and failure is an area that plagued Smith, which is why he opted to help young teammates.

“He was lower than most guys on this team.”

“What a great message for our entire team,” Meyer said. “He was lower than most guys on this team.”

Running backs coach Stan Drayton saw Smith’s newfound mentoring role on a daily basis. Drayton lauded Smith for standing up in front of teammates and not only admitting shortcomings, but also offering a strategy to circumvent that route in the future.

“To me, that’s leadership,” Drayton said. “He’s just standing in from of them, saying ‘Hey, these are the mistakes that I made and you’re not going to make them. You know why? Because I’m not going to let you.’ That’s the kind of special stuff that goes on in our room.”

Don’t think for a second Smith’s lost his competitive streak. A desire still burns deep to be a difference maker on offense. After all, that’s what he was recruited to do. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound running back is a blend of power, speed and athleticism.

Spring ball still never acted as a sanctuary for Smith’s game. There was a clear gap between Elliott and the challengers this year, though it didn’t mean Smith left hard work behind. Effort was never lacking, from winter workouts through spring practice.

“I definitely feel like I've put in my time,” he said. “I've been working hard trying to compete. I feel like I'm in the best shape I've ever been. This could be a good year for me.”

The Buckeyes would never be opposed to a deep backfield. Replacing Carlos Hyde’s 1,500 yards isn’t a one-man job. Identifying where Smith fits in falls on Drayton’s radar. The running backs coach discovered Smith’s height maybe isn’t always the asset many believed it to be.

Breaking tackles and securing the football are more difficult thanks to long arms. Drayton found that a more compact frame sometimes lends itself to being more suited for creating yardage in college, even though it seems like size translates into power.

“[Smith’s] starting to grow into his body and learn how to use it and create power angles for himself, and it’s starting to show in his execution,” Drayton said. “He’s really on the right track. I’m excited for Rod.”

Smith puts his perspective in easy terms, leaving it up to the coaches. He can only do so much, and he believes his latest audition served as a reminder of what he can be.

“I have never not wanted to be on the field,” Smith said. “All I can do is keep playing my game, keep listening to [coaches] and get better every day.”

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