Smith Wants To Carry The Load

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Michael Smith walked up the ramp, plopped down on the cement blocks outside the practice fields and had to regain his bearings as an interview began Thursday.

"Sorry," he said after being asked the first question. "Could you repeat that? I'm a little woozy right now."

It was understandable. The pint-sized player had just wrapped up a physical day, which was highlighted by two hours of contact work. He banged into linebackers, smashed up against linemen and even dished out a few blows to some of Arkansas' defensive backs.

But even though it took awhile to shake the cobwebs, the 5-foot-7, 173-pound Smith couldn't have been happier about the collisions. That's because the collegiate careers of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones have been over since Jan. 1, leaving Smith with a chance to prove he can carry the load in coach Bobby Petrino's offense this spring.

"I wish them much success," Smith said of the two backs, who will be first-round picks in next week's draft. "But once somebody is gone, it's somebody else's opportunity.

"So I feel like now is my time. If I don't do it now, there won't be a second chance."

The urgency is warranted for Smith, who knows what it's like to stand on the sidelines.

Smith didn't play much behind McFadden and Jones, but did make the most of his opportunities. He has rushed for 550 yards and 6 touchdowns. He ripped off an 81-yard touchdown run against Florida International last fall. He was even called on for a more prominent role late last year, when Jones was sidelined by a thigh bruise.

The experiences as Arkansas' third back helped Smith lock up a first-team spot when spring practice began. It has helped him hold onto it the past three weeks, too.

"It's just the way he's taking care of the ball, the way he's picked up the offense," running backs coach Tim Horton said. "He's really a smart player and does not bust a whole lot. ... I think right now it's pretty clear that we've got one that's probably head and shoulders above the others."

But Smith knows better than to sit back and relax because there are too many questions left to answer.

The biggest revolve around his size and durability in the unforgiving Southeastern Conference. Both McFadden and Jones nursed injuries in 2007. So how exactly does the smaller Smith expect to survive a season unscathed?

"Being an undersized back, the first question is always going to be how tough is he?" Smith said, acknowledging the concern. "How tough can he be? Can he be physical?"

Smith is doing all he can this spring to show some of the toughness Petrino demands.

He missed last Saturday's scrimmage because of a hip pointer, which he suffered earlier in the practice. But he returned for the next practice, hobbled his way through drills and could hardly walk when the workout ended.

"If I can run, if I can go, if I can hold the ball, if I can just think straight, I'm going to be out there," Smith said.

The mentality may be impressing Petrino, who said before Tuesday's practice that the running back position was "wide open" after two weeks of spring drills.

He had a different tone Thursday after being asked if anyone is solidifying a starting spot.

"Knowing that Michael Smith is up full speed and running, I think he has more knowledge of what's going on in the backfield," Petrino said.

Arkansas isn't ready, yet, to say Smith is the type of player that will easily earn 20 to 25 carries a game like McFadden. In fact, the Hogs could rely on a few like Brandon Barnett, Chip Gregory or incoming freshmen.

But Smith is planning to make an impression as the spring wears on, continuing with today's scrimmage. After all, he doesn't want to miss out on any more opportunities.

"The coaches said that's showtime," Smith said of the scrimmages. "That's when you can show us what you're made of. I only have one scrimmage under my belt.

"So I want to go out there and show what I can do."

Michael Smith

Class: Junior

Position: Running Back

Height: 5-foot-7

Weight: 173 pounds

Hometown: Tallahassee, Fla.

Notables: Arkansas' fourth leading rusher in 2007, running for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns. ... Turned in Arkansas' longest run of the season with an 81-yard touchdown against Florida International. ... Has compiled 550 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns in his career.

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