Rashard Smith was a rare commodity in the Tom O'Brien era: an explosively athletic recruit. His promise was evident from his very first game, a nationally televised season opener against South Carolina that saw Smith take a punt back 31 yards. He was tackled by the helmet in what appeared to be a blatant facemask penalty, but the call was missed on the field, costing the Pack an invaluable 15 yards in a game where yards were nearly impossible to come by. The Cocks held on to win, 7-3, and Pack fans were left to wonder what might have been had the yellow hanky flown.
Smith, then a true freshman, moved into the starting lineup at cornerback just one week later, but an ankle injury followed by a season-ending knee injury have left Pack fans wondering what he might have been had injuries not derailed his progress. He took a redshirt in 2010 to give his knee time to heal completely, then bounced from defense to offense to defense again in 2011, often playing both corner and receiver in the same game but never solidifying a role. He appeared in all 13 games on defense but started just three. He had just one reception for six yards.
Moved to receiver fulltime a year ago, Smith showed glimpses of the explosive player he appeared he would be as a true freshman. Five of his 18 grabs were good for touchdowns, and he had a 73-yard punt return for a score. But despite O'Brien's frequent mentions of needing to get the ball in his hands more, Smith was never more than the team's fourth option behind fellow receivers Tobais Palmer, Quintin Payton, and Bryan Underwood.
One game does not a trend make, but new coach Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada appear to have elevated Smith to focal point of the new pistol offense. The redshirt senior tallied 158 all-purpose yards in the season-opening 40-14 win over Louisiana Tech, grabbing five passes for 82 yards, rushing three times for 28 yards, and adding 48 yards in the return game.
With the loss of dual-threat quarterback Brandon Mitchell for at least a month, Smith's role in the offense is likely to increase. Doeren wants a quarterback who can run the ball. Even if the defense knows the QB is a run-only threat, having the QB run it rather than hand it off and peel out of the play gives the offense an extra blocker. Smith, who tallied 30 interceptions as a prep DB but also played QB, will probably see time in the wildcat Saturday, adding to a stable of backs that provided something against Louisiana Tech that the Pack never had last season: balance.
The Pack rushed for four scores against the Bulldogs. The team managed just 12 rushing touchdowns all of last season, or less than one per game. The Pack's 237 yards rushing were well more than double their average from a year ago, and the 4.2 yards per carry average against La. Tech would have been the team's second best average against an FBS opponent last year (4.9 vs. Miami). Forty four percent of the team's total offense came on the ground in the opener; last year just 26% of the team's total yardage was churned out in the ground game.
Though Doeren insists backup QB Pete Thomas can run the ball passably well, he understandably does not want to expose another signal caller to injury. When the Pack brass wants a QB run, Bryant Shirreffs will likely take some direct snaps, but expect Smith to get touches that way too. He will remain a dangerous target in the passing game as well, and he might have his biggest impact yet in special teams. Richmond kicker Peter Yoder had seven attempts last week and failed to register even one touchback. Smith will likely receive passes, punts, snaps, handoffs, and kickoffs Saturday, and whether or not he takes one to the house, he appears to have finally taken the spotlight.