Before he suited up for Ohio State’s double-overtime thriller against Penn State, Rod Smith posted a picture of himself staring off into the distance with the following caption:
"If this could be your last football game today, "how hard would you play??"
As it turns out, Saturday was the final chapter of a disappointing career that came to an unceremonious — but somewhat fitting — end when Smith was dismissed for violating teams rules Monday night.
"He's had issues really since he's been at Ohio State," head coach Urban Meyer, who confirmed Smith's departure from the team, said Tuesday.
This year was supposed to be different.
"He's had issues really since he's been at Ohio State."– Urban Meyer
Smith, a fifth-year senior who notoriously struggled with fumbles on the field and properly conducting himself off of it, had appeared to make a recent turnaround. It was as if he'd realized this was his final chance to salvage an uninspiring and bankrupt legacy.
Instead, Smith, who was supposed to be the next great Ohio State running back when he came to Columbus in 2010, leaves the Buckeyes as enigma — one of the program's most puzzling in recent memory.
It was at Paul Harding High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., where Smith became a blue-chip prospect and one of the nation's top running backs. An unusual combination of speed and a 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame evoked memories of former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Pro-Bowler Eddie George for those following his recruitment.
After being courted by former head coach Jim Tressel and then-running backs coach Dick Tressel, Smith committed to Ohio State over the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee, Iowa and Purdue.
He redshirted his freshman season, but impressed the coaching staff in practice. But in 2011, as the program underwent unprecedented turmoil after its infamous Tattoo-Gate scandal, Smith was cast in a role that he didn't seem quite ready for in the temporary absence of former running back Daniel "Boom" Herron.
While Smith rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries in his collegiate debut against Akron, he nearly cost the team a week later versus Toledo. That's when the fumbles started and where trust eroded.
As a result, he fell behind fellow running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall on the depth chart and became an afterthought in an already forgettable season. To top it off, Smith missed the team's flight to the Gator Bowl in late December — the final blemish in a campaign that began with much promise.
When Meyer took over Ohio State in 2012, the former Florida coach presented Smith with an ultimatum: “The conversation in January 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." Of course, he chose to stay put.
The Buckeyes went 12-0 the following season, but Smith contributed just 215 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. An impressive 33-yard run against Nebraska, though — where he ducked and dodged defenders on the way to the end zone — served as a glimpse of the kind of player Smith could perhaps eventually be.
Two springs ago, Meyer went from trying to force Smith out of the program to one of his biggest supporters.
“He's a good guy. I love Rod Smith. I love guys that turn it around," he said. "What a great message for our entire team. He was lower than most guys on this team. To see him rebound ... it's called maturity, and it's happening."
But Smith slipped again when Meyer suspended him for the 2013 season-opener against Buffalo for an undisclosed incident that happened during the offseason.
"I love Rod Smith. I love guys that turn it around ... It's called Maturity and it's happening."– Urban Meyer
Last March and April, though, Meyer and the coaching staff talked of a player determined to make the most of his final season. In the shadow of Hyde — who became a crux of Ohio State's offense and one of the best running backs in the country — Smith finished the year with 122 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries. He was a non-factor, and his career, it seemed, would never live up to the expectations that hung over it.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton said Smith, who implored his teammates not to make the same mistakes, turned into a role model.
“To me, that’s leadership. 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,'" Drayton said. "That’s the kind of special stuff that goes on in our room.”
But a few weeks later, Smith missed the rest of spring camp because of academic issues. It felt like more of the same from the player who followed every step forward with two steps backwards.
After Ohio State beat Navy in its season opener in Baltimore, Meyer invited reporters into the team's meeting room to watch film of Smith making an 11-second block on a punt return.
With a clicker in his hand and a wide smile on his face, Meyer replayed the clip over and over with childlike joy.
“It was one of the greatest efforts I've ever seen on a play."– -Urban Meyer
“It was one of the greatest efforts I've ever seen on a play,” Meyer said. “For 11 seconds, he locked down a defender and then knocked him down at the end of the play. One of the greatest plays I've ever seen.”
When he showed it to the entire team days earlier, he said they gave Smith a standing ovation.
“Rod Smith had the play of the day,” Meyer said. “And the way we do our business here, that entitled him some carries.”
And though he increasingly conceded reps to sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, Smith found a niche on special teams and in short-yardage situations.
“It’s just good to hear that I’m noticed and that I can contribute other than on offense," Smith said. "It was good to get called out, but at the same time you just help out the team any way you can."
With 102 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries (plus a touchdown reception) through seven games, he was on pace to have, at least statistically, his best season yet. For seemingly the first time in Smith's career, the growth and development the Buckeyes talked of in the offseason was coming to fruition.
"When I was getting ready for training camp, there was part of me saying we probably won't have him back," Meyer said. "Not a bad guy, just struggled academically, didn't do much. He's been a pleasure to coach. His demeanor, his work ethic. I really like where he's at."
In the fourth quarter of a blowout of Rutgers two weekends ago, Smith — who scored a touchdown earlier in the contest — sliced up the middle for 13 yards on 3rd-and-three to mark another instance of an on-field triumph for a player who squandered countless opportunities in years past.
Who knew it would be the last carry of his Ohio State career.
“I definitely feel like I've put in my time,” Smith said in the spring. “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.”
It started that way.
But in the end, Smith’s will be remembered for anything but.