Running back Rodney Smith just turned 22 a few weeks ago. But on the young and inexperienced Gophers football team, Smith talks — and acts — like an extreme elder statesman.
"Grandpa of the team gets to help guys out if they ask questions," Smith said this week. "They don't call me grandpa, but I know I am a grandpa."
Not literally, of course, but consider this: He's part of an offense that has four quarterbacks competing for the starting role, and none of them has even thrown a Division I pass.
Shannon Brooks, a senior who has shared the backfield with Smith for three years, was lost for the season to injury earlier this month — leaving several backs with far less experience vying for playing time behind Smith.
Wide receivers? Some young ones will "surprise some people" this year, Smith said.
That leaves Grandpa Smith, who has bulked up to 210 pounds and is staying there thanks in part to training and in part to a daily trip to the waffle maker in the new athletics cafeteria, as the greatest known commodity among skill position players in second-year coach P.J. Fleck's offense.
But while Smith might talk like he's ready for a senior discount, don't discount the fifth-year senior. Even as he jokes about his role, he embraces it. And after racking up more than 3,000 all-purpose yards over the past two seasons, Smith is ready for big things on the field as well.
"I don't take it as pressure, but it is exciting knowing that the team looks to me as a leader," Smith said. "I'm excited, and I have to embrace it. I can't have a bad day or let the team have a bad day. It's on me to dictate that, and I'm excited to see how I respond to that."
Fleck calls Smith an "obviously tremendous player" and said he's been impressed by evidence of his growth as a leader so far in spring practice.
"What Rodney does is he's not only leading some guys on offense, but he's turning himself over and getting over to the defensive side," Fleck said. "He's leading the team and not just the offensive players."
Smith has time to do that in practice because he acknowledges he's not getting as many repetitions in team drills while younger players gain experience.
"I'm more of a — I'm not going to say a coach, but in a leader role," Smith said of practices this spring, which have been different from in past years. "I'm stepping back and watching guys and helping out. … They haven't played that much. We can't slow down. Anybody in [a game] has to do the best job they can."
When fall rolls around, though, the expectation is that Smith will carry a heavy load on the field.
"The emphasis in the offseason was explosiveness and conditioning," Smith said. "Now it's a key part of my training with Shannon being out to be in the best shape I can be going into the season."
He looks pretty good — especially for a grandpa.