First a receiver then a defensive back and now a receiver again.
First he was an inside receiver, but now he’s outside.
No one could blame University of Akron junior L.T. Smith, all 6-feet, 203 pounds of him, if he was dizzy from his head spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
However, after last week’s breakout performance against Michigan, it appears as if he’s found his bearings at the spot he played in high school before bouncing around during his first year with the Zips.
Smith caught five passes last week for 125 yards, including two for more than 40 yards, and generally ran circles around Wolverines defensive back Raymon Taylor.
“I just attacked it like any other game,” he said after Thursday morning’s practice session. “It just happened that they called my number. When someone calls your number, that’s all you can do.”
That might be the case, but this is the first time he stepped up in this fashion. He was as responsible as anyone for the Zips’ success against the Wolverines. UA coach Terry Bowden saw a difference in him.
“Out there, at some point, you could see he wanted the ball,” Bowden said.
He earned the starting job, but what made last week different was that for the first time, a connection developed with sophomore quarterback Kyle Pohl. It’s something Pohl had with Zach D’Orazio already, but in Bowden’s spread offense he should be able to go to any receiver on the field with confidence.
Smith has earned that.
“Obviously he had a big game,” Pohl said, “but we’ve been pretty solid in practice all around, not just with L.T., but everyone else. I think the time we put in together during the season and the offseason is starting to show and it came together in the last game.”
This season changed for Smith once again in that he moved from the slot to the outside, a position that Pohl called completely different than playing inside. The move forced Smith to change his mindset and learn new elements of Bowden’s system.
“It is a transition because we moved him inside and outside and that’s two different positions,” Bowden said. “It’s even hard to go from inside to outside, much less defensive back to wide receiver. I think he’s done a great job. He’s really learned a lot fast.”
Bowden calls Smith a “rep player.” He gets better every time he practices a route. What he might have lacked initially is confidence.
“He has outstanding talent, but sometimes I think he gets down on himself a bit,” Bowden said.
Judging from Saturday’s game, that might be turning around.
“I came in, switched spots and I was able to start,” Smith said. “I’m more comfortable there [at receiver]. The team likes me there, so it’s good.”
With Pohl in his first year as starter, it made sense that getting in sync with his receivers was going to take time, even with them working before camp started in August on an almost-daily basis.
For the first six quarters of the season Pohl and his receivers were searching for chemistry.
Something changed against James Madison as a hobbled Pohl, who went out of the game with an ankle injury only to return when backup Nick Hirschman injured his knee, began to click with D’Orazio. That connection continued in Ann Arbor with D’Orazio, a Cuyahoga Heights native, catching six balls for 97 yards and a touchdown. Until Smith emerged as a reliable target against Michigan, who would step up next remained a mystery.
That question has been answered and there is a fundamental reason, Pohl said.
“I think it did because that game experience, you can try to mimic it in practice,” he said, “but that game speed and game atmosphere has a different effect on players, so until we had a couple of games under our belt that’s what took us to that next level.”
“Getting that game experience under his belt really helped him get that connection with all the receivers,” he said of Pohl.
As the Zips prepare to face Louisiana-Lafayette today, there’s little doubt that Smith will receive plenty of attention, but Bowden sounds confident the Painesville native will continue to deliver.
“I’m hoping,” he said. “I’m watching L.T. blossom into the player he can be. He gets better with every rep. I think mentally, as far as a guy who steps out on that field, now he’ll line up and believe that he can beat that guy because he’s a wide receiver. I really believe that’s the hurdle he overcame.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.