Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys dismissed the team’s second-leading receiver, Brian Smith, this week after learning Smith was involved in a recent fight, according to people familiar with the situation.
Claeys told KFAN (100.3-FM) on Tuesday that Smith’s dismissal was for a “violation of team rules.”
No other details about the fight were available, but people familiar with the situation called it a “last straw” for Smith, a junior walk-on from Milwaukee who was having a breakout season. Smith, who could not be reached for comment, started six of seven games this season and had 17 receptions for 279 yards and a touchdown.
“Unfortunately, he had a little violation of team rules, or a big violation of team rules, and has been dismissed,” Claeys told KFAN. “There’s always consequences for the choices that you make and what you do, and it’s very unfortunate, and I hate to do it as a coach.”
The Star Tribune did not find any police reports involving Smith in a records search.
Smith’s dismissal comes as five other players under restraining orders expect to learn this week whether they’ll be allowed to play Saturday against Purdue. An alleged victim of a Sept. 2 incident petitioned in October to keep Ray Buford, KiAnte Hardin, Tamarion Johnson, Dior Johnson and Carlton Djam from TCF Bank Stadium, where she takes part in the university’s gameday operations, as well as her apartment.
Those players did not play in the most recent home game, Oct. 22 against Rutgers, but were eligible for the victory at Illinois last weekend. The players have not been arrested or charged, and they will be appealing to have those restraining orders overturned at a Wednesday hearing.
Speaking in general terms to KFAN, Claeys said: “Ultimately, I am responsible. But at the same time, I can’t be with them 24 hours a day, when you have 110 kids all over the place. I don’t know if they take you serious sometimes and think that [punishment] just won’t happen.
“Sometimes there’s a mentality out there that as long as you’re winning, you can do what you want, and people will oversee it and find a way to get around it and whatever. But that’s not the case.
“I tell them all the time, you can play hard and aggressive on the football field. But when you’re off of it, you can be a good person, you can go to class, you can be involved in the community, and that is your obligation. And whenever you make a bad choice, you’re taking a chance of losing a privilege of being a part of the football team at the University of Minnesota.”
The loss of Smith makes things even more challenging for a Gophers team struggling with its wide receiver depth and already trying to replace injured tight end Brandon Lingen. Drew Wolitarsky ranks third in the Big Ten with 40 receptions and ninth in the conference with 514 receiving yards.
Without Smith, there’s an even bigger drop to the team’s third-leading wide receiver, Tyler Johnson (13 receptions, 116 yards), and then to Rashad Still (five receptions, 79 yards).
The Gophers will move forward with Wolitarsky, Still, Johnson and Eric Carter as their primary receivers. Claeys told KFAN this also could be an opportunity for Melvin Holland Jr. and Hunter Register.
The 6-4, 210-pound Smith had been a revelation this season after not seeing the field his first three years on campus, including his redshirt year in 2013. He graduated from Brookfield (Wis.) East High School and chose to walk on at Minnesota after not getting many scholarship offers.
Smith had seven catches for 101 yards at Penn State in this year’s Big Ten opener.
“I think everybody has always known that he has what it takes,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said of Smith last month. “He’s always been a little bit of a knucklehead.”
Smith agreed, saying he had just been “irresponsible.”
“Typical putting my social life ahead of football, stuff like that,” Smith said last month. “Not prioritizing the right way, stuff you do when you’re young, you don’t really think about it straight, stuff like that.”
Claeys and Leidner both had heart-to-heart talks with Smith over the offseason, and he started showing his promise.
“It took a lot of growing up for me, which obviously is influenced by everyone around here,” Smith said last month. “Once I decided what I wanted to get out of this opportunity, that’s when it was easy for me to make the most out of it.”
Smith’s production had waned in recent weeks, with only one reception over the past three games — a 34-yard comeback route two weeks ago against Rutgers. But he was still a strong candidate to earn a scholarship for spring semester, based on the way he was contributing.
“I feel bad about it, but it’s one of those things,” Claeys told KFAN. “Like I said, the warnings have been there, and eventually, you’re responsible — all of us are responsible — for the decisions that we make and what we choose to do.”