FAYETTEVILLE — Michael Smith knows what he is, and more importantly, he knows who he’s not.
He’s a career backup, not a Heisman Trophy finalist. He’s asked more about his durability than his NFL future. And there is no mistaking the undersized running back for a bruising workhorse.
“I’m not 6-3, 220 or anything close to that,” said Smith, who’s listed at 5-foot-7, 173 pounds. “So anytime I can get out into space and I don’t have to run through the tackles, that’s good.”
Smith admits it has been hard at times over the past three years to wait his turn to be Arkansas’ featured running back. When he arrived on campus in 2005, he thought like most freshmen that he’d get on the field and contribute immediately.
But Smith had the misfortune of showing up in Fayetteville at the same time as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, considered one of the best tailback tandems in college football history.
While McFadden emerged as a two-time Heisman runner-up and Jones developed into a first-round draft pick, Smith sat and waited, occasionally getting into the game long enough to give the other tailbacks a rest.
“I had to learn patience. When I first got here, I definitely did not have it,” said Smith, who turned 21 on July 28. “But seeing what those guys (did), you definitely understand that it’s a process, people have to wait their turn and I was one of those people that had to wait their turn.”
But now that the focus is on Smith and the starting job is his, he wants to keep the expectations realistic, if not somewhat on the low end.
The junior acknowledges that he’s never played a full game in college, and even he wonders if he can hold up for an entire season as Arkansas’ starter. His first test comes Saturday in the season opener against Western Illinois in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“Michael may be small, but what (do) they say?” Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. “It’s not the size of the dog, it’s the fight in them.”
Smith is unassuming off the football field. He’s one of the Razorbacks’ shorter players, and he battled a hamstring injury as a freshman.
But Arkansas’ coaches have high hopes for the shifty running back, who’s finally getting a chance to show his breakaway speed now that he’s healthy. He’s a threat at catching the football out of the backfield, and he could also be used as a kick returner.
“He’s had some speed bumps (in the past) and there may be more,” Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton said. “But he’s been a good leader for us, and I know he’ll have a good season.”
In the spring, there were questions about whether Smith was durable enough to be a featured back in the Southeastern Conference. But some of those doubts have been erased since Arkansas opened fall camp in early August.
Smith looks more chiseled after gaining 11 pounds in the offseason, and he has shown an extra burst of speed that has made him hard to tackle in practice.
“Right now, to me, he looks really fast,” Arkansas tight end Andrew Davie said. “I haven’t seen anybody run him down yet in the open field.”
Smith has rushed for only 550 yards and six touchdowns in 21 games over the past two seasons. He’s perhaps known more for his costly fumble in a close loss to Kentucky last season than his 81-yard touchdown run against Florida International five games later.
While Arkansas’ starting job is his, the idea of Smith carrying the football 25 times a game seems unlikely, especially in Petrino’s pass-happy offense. A more realistic workload for the junior is 15-20 carries a game.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re going to have to be a tailback by committee,” Horton said. “I don’t know that we’re going to have one guy that’s going to be able to pound the ball 30 times a game.”
Smith sidesteps the comparisons to McFadden and Jones. In fact, he sees himself as a smaller, quicker running back more in the mold of Fred Talley, who played for the Razorbacks from 2000-02.
But after what has seemed like a long wait, Smith admits he’s ready to finally get his first career start.
“I’m not the backup guy anymore,” Smith said. “In the past, Arkansas has always had good runners and I don’t think that anyone expects for it to be a drop-off.”
Running Backs At A Glance
Sure Thing: Michael Smith isn’t as feared as Darren McFadden or as proven as Felix Jones, but the junior is the closest thing Arkansas has to a sure thing in the backfield. He’s speedy, versatile and finally getting a chance in the starting lineup.
Big Question: After Smith, the Razorbacks have a cluster of talented but unproven tailbacks. It remains to be seen which one will be called on to give Smith a break. Junior Brandon Barnett and sophomore Chip Gregory have each battled injuries and fumbling problems.
Top Newcomer: Freshman De’Anthony Curtis showed early in fall camp why he was considered the top prospect in Arkansas last season. He’s versatile, capable of taking the handoff or catching the football out of the backfield. But a knee injury has slowed his development.
Quotable: “I think everybody knows now that it’s going to take more than one (tailback); it’s going to take more than two. So with the running backs knowing that, they come out here ready to play, knowing that their opportunity will come.” — Smith said.