Ohio State football: Rod Smith finds his niche, contributes in crucial moments

Every time Ohio State senior running back Rod Smith has been available to the media this fall, and it has been often, somewhere in the conversation the same question arises: What has gotten into him — and you might add, finally — this season?

“I’m just more focused,” he said. “I worked on my all-around game throughout the offseason. I’m really just trying to come out here and be a leader for my unit and my team, and make plays.”

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He’s not the starter. That job belongs to sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games on a combined 52 carries. But Smith has become the primary backup for the first time in his career. The coaches have called on the 6-foot-3, 231-pounder, especially in short-yardage situations.

In other words, Smith has been getting quality playing time, not mop-up duty.

Freshman Curtis Samuel is expected to return Saturday against Rutgers at Ohio Stadium.

At one time, that might have signaled a step back for Smith, but coach Urban Meyer said that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

“Rod Smith is in a street fight not to let him blend in,” Meyer said.

He said the running backs, led by assistant coach Stan Drayton, are the most competitive group on the team. One of the main reasons is Smith’s insistence on being a factor.

He showed up at Ohio State in 2010 from Fort Wayne, Ind., as one of the more celebrated running back prospects in the country.

But after stumbles on the field and off, he had never been much more than an afterthought until this season. He even sat out most of spring practice for academic reasons, which seemed to indicate his playing status was in jeopardy.

“He was 88, out the gate in spring. A nonfactor,” Meyer said. “When I was getting ready for training camp, there was part of me saying we probably won’t have him back. Not a bad guy, just struggled academically, didn’t do much.”

But Smith got the work done in the classroom and in the weight room. Meyer has liked what he has seen in both places.

“He’s been a pleasure to coach,” he said. “His demeanor, his work ethic — I really like where he’s at.”

If only Smith had gotten himself straight three or four years ago.

“I wish I could go back,” Smith said. “I was a younger player then. I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve been through a lot of stuff to basically humble me, and I’ve learned a lot. I feel good about where I’m at right now.”

In Meyer’s on-the-field economy, touchdowns are the most cherished commodity. In 2014, Smith is third on the team with four — that equals his career total going into the season. Three have come on runs and one on a swing pass at Maryland two weeks ago.

Although he has only 20 carries for 80 yards, the touchdowns mean he is being trusted at crucial moments.

“When my number is called down there, I am definitely trying to find the end zone,” Smith said. “Whatever I can do to help the team, that’s really my main concern, and whatever happens, happens.”

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