Rodney Smith’s father made him watch game film when he was “about 6.”
“It was crazy,” Smith said. “You’re 6 or 7 years old and getting chewed out like you’re in college.”
Now he’s in college and not getting chewed out at all. In his first game at Minnesota, the redshirt freshman running back carried 16 times for 88 yards and a touchdown, and caught one pass for 3 yards.
He earned a 100 percent grade from Gophers coach Jerry Kill.
Last time Kill gave a perfect score?
“I can’t remember,” he said. “Usually somebody goes the wrong way or doesn’t pick up a blitz. To give you an example, we’ve got a lot of guys who graded out at 60, 70, 75 percent. That’s pretty good for a guy up front.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had one who played 46 plays and didn’t make a mental error. That’s hard to do in football. Certainly when you’re a freshman.”
The Gophers have produced three NFL-worthy running backs in the past nine years: Marion Barber, Laurence Maroney and David Cobb. Smith is this year’s model. In the parlance, he’s got wiggle and burst, juice and riboflavin. (This is a test: One of those is not a football term.)
Thanks to his Montessori-style early learning, Smith also has the language down.
“You have linebackers who like to play over the top, giving you easy cutback lanes,” he said. “You watch to see if they’re good tacklers or not, so you know when you get into the open field what moves you could make or whether to run them over. You look to see coverages — if they play the buzz look, sometimes you know you might get smoke off the edge because they’re going to send help to the corner on the island.”
When a Viking talks about smoke off the edge, you worry about a drug bust. Smith is merely speaking his second language — footballese.
“His dad’s an athletic director and coach,” Kill said. “That’s probably helped him. I think he’s pretty good. He did that against TCU. I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”
Smith took over for Rodrick Williams against TCU and may not give up the job until he gets drafted.
“As a young guy to do what he did the other night?” Kill said. “We should have played him more.”
Glen Mason, Kill’s predecessor, could find an underappreciated running back. Maroney was an underrecruited speedster out of St. Louis. Barber was a converted defensive back. Cobb and Smith are products of a different kind of Gophers football recruiting — the kind capable of speaking with a drawl.
Cobb, now with the Tennessee Titans, is from Killeen in east Texas, the region that produced Adrian Peterson. Smith is from Jonesboro, Ga. He spoke with Georgia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Auburn before a knee injury ended his junior season, giving the Gophers an opening.
Gophers assistant Brian Anderson became friendly with Smith’s father. By the time Georgia Tech made a late scholarship offer, Smith had decided on Minnesota. At least, his father had.
Kill said he began intensively recruiting players from the South when he arrived at Southern Illinois, and realized that strategy had once made the Salukis program strong. His mentor, Dennis Franchione, once coached at Texas A&M, and one of his best friends in coaching, Gary Patterson, works at TCU.
Kill has spoken at coaching clinics in Alabama and Texas and has pushed his staff to grow roots in places like Texas, Georgia and Florida, the farmers markets of fresh football talent.
“The hard thing is getting those kids here,” Kill said. “Usually, once we get them here and show them the Twin Cities, it’s good. I just wish we had official visits in the summer.”
Unfrozen lakes tend to be bigger recruiting draws than ice sculptures.
“It’s helped our speed,” Kill said of recruiting in the South. “I think everybody in the Big Ten is trying to do that.”
Venturing into Georgia landed the Gophers a talented back with a coach’s aptitude. The kid can think on his feet.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On