FOOTBALL: Smith Takes On No. 1 Role

FAYETTEVILLE — Michael Smith's performance on Saturday night was simply a carryover from what the running back has done all spring.

Smith took part in 14 of the 15 spring practices. He did so despite suffering from a hernia injury as well as a hip pointer. And he did so while trying to fill the void left at Arkansas by NFL first-round draft picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

"When opportunity knocks, you've got to take advantage of it," Arkansas running backs/tight ends coach Tim Horton said. "And he's got the opportunity, and he's taken advantage of it all spring."

On Saturday night, Smith reaped the rewards of his pain threshold — running for a game-high 157 yards on 13 carries. Smith will undergo surgery on his hernia on Thursday morning, but only after leaving a lasting impression on his coaches.

"He made some great plays," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "It's great to see his speed show up."

Smith also left an impression on those who think the 5-foot-7, 173-pound junior isn't big enough to handle the workload of a featured back. He ran for 128 yards on 12 carries in the first half, including a 21-yard touchdown run for the Red team.

"The thing that was encouraging was that he was able to generate yards for himself," Arkansas running backs/tight ends coach Tim Horton said. "Whether he made somebody miss, or he broke a tackle, we were real pleased."

Smith saw plenty of action last season as a sophomore, taking part in 10 games and averaging 6.6 yards per carry on his way to 303 yards for the season. However, he missed time due to an arrest for using a stolen credit card and a key fumble in a loss to Kentucky. The charges in the arrest were later dropped.

During the spring, Smith has made it a point to impress his new coaches on and off the field. In fact, his hernia injury happened shortly before spring practice began while he was trying to show off during a weight-lifting session.

Smith has come away impressed with the new coaches, and he's been pleased with his own advancement.

"I've made more mental progress than anything," Smith said. "I've learned a lot more about the game with coach (Petrino) and his coaching staff with the way they've broken down plays and situations and formations.

"I feel a lot more prepared when I go out on the field."

Horton acknowledged that Smith's lack of size can potentially put him in difficult spots on the field, most notably while running inside and passing blocking. Other than those situation, though, Horton said after Saturday's performance that "his size doesn't limit him at all." Horton also said Smith has handled his new role as the No. 1 back in fine fashion, both during the spring and on Saturday.

For his part, Smith was equally pleased with his performance on Saturday and the excitement the new coaching staff has brought to the offense. He was especially excited by a 55-yard reception from quarterback Casey Dick in the second half, something he said wasn't likely to happen a year ago.

"Coach (Petrino), he just calls a number of plays from many different formations," Smith said. "You just never know what he's going to come with, so you have to be ready for anything."

And now Smith is looking forward to surgery, as well as the start of the real action in the fall.

"Coach Petrino emphasized toughness and leaders who have to keep going because he wants the offense and whole team to flow like it's supposed to," Smith said.

"You got a couple of nicks and bruises, but you've just got to keep going."

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