Running backs coach Kevin Smith inherits a talented backfield at Ole Miss and knows what it takes to be reach the top of the college game and make it to the NFL.
The Rebels ran for 3,015 yards in 2019 with first-year quarterback John Rhys Plumlee lining up in the backfield alongside true freshman Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, and senior Scottie Phillips. The three-headed monster of freshman quickly made its presence felt in the Southeastern Conference and did so with relative ease.
Ealy and Conner return as one of the most dangerous thunder and lighting duos in the country as sophomores, and will be joined by two solid incoming recruits to make a busy, but extremely skilled running back room. Kentrell Bullock is a downfield runner from Columbus, Miss. and Henry Parrish brings four-star physicality and speed from Miami, Fla.
The Rebel runners were coached by current wide receivers coach Derrick Nix in a 2019 offense that was run-first under head coach Matt Luke and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez. That system will surely change under new head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby in 2020, but the young bunch of athletes will still have the ball in their hands frequently and can only get better under the tutelage of Smith, who doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best college football running backs to ever do it.
As a three-year letterman at Southridge High School in Miami, Fla., Smith played both ways as a safety and a running back. He ran for 1,125 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior and was a two-time All-Dade County selection on both sides of the ball.
If you don’t know, Dade County has produced a large, if not the most, amount of NFL players from anywhere in the country. Through Week 16 of the 2019 season, there were 42 active NFLers who played at 18 Miami-Dade County schools, including Frank Gore, Dalvin Cook, Teddy Bridgewater, Ereck Flowers, Corey Liuget and Xavier Rhodes. And that’s just last season alone. For Smith to have been considered atop of the county as a running back is impressive. For him to be selected as a running back and a safety speaks to the kind of athlete he was.
Despite the dominance on offense and defense, Smith was overlooked (disrespected, honestly) out of high school and committed to Central Florida over Akron as a two-star recruit in 2004. The rest of the nation whiffed on that one. He got to Orlando and went brazy from his first play from scrimmage. Literally, his first play from scrimmage.
He became UCF’s all-time leading rusher and Conference USA’s second leading rusher with 4,679 yards over the course of three seasons, even with limited action as a sophomore. Smith ran for 1,178 yards in year one, played in only nine games and nearly eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in year two and capped it off with an unprecedented season as a junior.
In 2007, his junior year, Smith set a single-season NCAA record with 450 rushing attempts, shattering Southern California Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen’s previous record of 405, and fell 62 yards short of Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders’ record of 2,628 single-season rushing yards.
The CUSA champion Knights went 10-4 that year and scored 502 points in 14 games. Smith accounted for 210 points, so only 41 percent of them. No big deal, not like he was good or anything. UCF went on to lose the Liberty Bowl to Mississippi State— so Smith has a deep-rooted distaste for the Dawgs as well.
No. 24 became the second UCF player to receive Heisman votes and was the school’s first consensus All-American, getting him easily inducted into the Knights’ Hall of Fame.
Smith was slept on again and was drafted to the Detroit Lions with the first pick of the third round in the 2008 NFL Draft. He won the starting job outright.
He finished with 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2008 on a Lions team that went 0-16. While 976 rushing yards may not break any records, for a rookie running back, behind an offensive line that horrendous, on a team that horrible, it’s a pretty dang good year. More importantly, he was set up for a breakout season in 2009 and was off to a strong start with 750 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in 13 games, reasonably on pace for almost 1,000 rushing yards and 1,500 total yards.
Smith was quick, strong and low to the ground with sharp cuts and breakaway speed. But a knee injury (a death wish for a running back’s career) took him out in Week 14. He would be out the remainder of the regular season, the entire offseason and the beginning of 2010.
The Lions showed little faith in his return and drafted Jahvid Best to take the starting role. When Smith’s contract expired in 2011, Detroit left him to free agency, but when Best was deemed out for the year in November after his second concussion, the Lions resigned him. He rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries and went 61 yards and a touchdown on four catches as the Lions came back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Carolina Panthers 49-35. Smith still had it, but never got a fair shake.
Unfortunately, the injury bug got him again the next week and he was carted off the field with an ankle injury. Smith’s NFL career virtually came to an end, and he would be hindered by injury again in 2014 when he signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
If he could have stayed healthy, Smith had the frame, speed, physicality and “it factor” to put his name alongside some of the NFL greats, as he did on the collegiate level.
Instead, he is rising through the ranks and teaching the next generation of superstars. Smith went back to coach at his alma mater after his short stint in the CFL and then joined Kiffin’s staff at FAU in 2017.
Now that’s a coach that can relate to players. Former NFL and UCF RB Kevin Smith, who is RBs coach at FAU, in jersey and pads for this morning’s practice. pic.twitter.com/MHYbIv2GYz— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) November 20, 2018
He stays in top shape and coaches his position as if he is still playing. Now that Smith is leading a group like Ealy, Conner, Bullock and Parrish at Ole Miss, expect some serious buzz out of the backfield. The Rebs will be running.