Smith Grabbing Bigger Piece Of Air Action

It's not a pretty sight, except to maybe a bone-and-joint guy wanting work. Even Chris Smith looks askance at a left hand battered by balls for years. By football fastballs, such as the recent shot which left his little finger-tip swollen and distorted.

"Dylan messed this one up," Smith explains. Then there's the thumb still scarred by a high school bullet. "Tyler threw it probably 90 miles an hour, I tried to catch it and it bent my thumb back." Broke it, too. At least that one healed in time, as will other breaks and bruises to Smith's mitts…including those he still expects are in store as the junior wideout keeps catching anything a Bulldog quarterback fires his way.

Just as Smith has done 27 times in games this season, tying him for the team lead in catches with fellow starter Arceto Clark. "I've been put in opportunities," Smith said. "I've been having great opportunities and now I take advantage of it."

By the same token Mississippi State passers are taking advantage of Smith, particularly the last two weekends with eight total grabs and 99 yards to show for it. That includes the lone Bulldog touchdown against Alabama, as he hauled in a 12-yard strike (fastball again) from Tyler Russell in the fourth quarter. It was Smith's second scoring catch of the junior season, both in SEC action after a 19-yarder in the South Carolina game.

And, both from his old Meridian HS comrade Russell. Not that the quarterback claims preference for a fellow former Wildcat, though. "It's just something that happens that way," Russell said. "If you go into a game just trying to throw to one person you're not going to do good at all. So I guess it just happens that way."

It happens because Smith, like Clark on the other side of the field, has made more things happen the second half of this 2011 season. There are all sorts of reasons why the Bulldog air game took time to develop, and none involved pretend this is a finished much less polished product. But the progress is apparent with more presumably in store.

"Yeah, it's a part of learning the offense, learning the position, learning the way to win," said Smith. Oh, and in his own case learning one personal lesson as well. "I started buying-in. At first really I wasn't buying-in, I was more selfish than team. Now it's all about team. It's all about team." Funny how that can work out, too.

The younger, more selfish Smith got immediate opportunities to play as a true 2009 freshman with limited results. After sitting out the '10 opener he took half a season to really get in a team-groove, but once Smith did the difference was obvious. He ended the soph season on a tear with 13 catches and 165 yards in the last three games, bowl game included. Smith also got his first college touchdown in last year's Egg Bowl victory at Oxford on a 15-yard throw by Chris Relf.

Now he's caught a ball, or much more often two and three of them, in 13 of his last 14 State games no matter who's doing the delivering. "He's got a good attitude out on the field, he's gotten better with his route-running," analyzed Russell, who knows Smith's skills better than any coach. Or in a sense, maybe his lack thereof?

"You know, he's not the fastest guy," said Russell. "But he runs consistent good routes and he knows how to beat his man."

No, Smith isn't offended by the buddy's comment. In fact, asked how a race between several State wideouts—Hs, Xs, and Ys—would finish, he's utterly honest. "First would be Arceto Clark; then Brandon Heavens, Ricco Sanders, Sam Williams. Then Chad Bumphis would come in before me, I'm probably the slowest one there is! But the most physical. And I can run routes very well."

The physical part is accurate as at 205 Smith outweighs all the others mentioned, often by a lot of lbs. So he could claim carrying the extra muscle slows him down a step. More seriously, though, Smith really does thrive in contact settings and doesn't shy away from traffic. His downfield blocking is accordingly improved too.

And if there were any questions about Smith's toughness of mind and body, go back to that South Carolina game when State was on a go-ahead drive. On a 2nd-and-long Russell fired for Smith coming across middle-field and mid-field, making the receiver go up and get the ball. "Oh, no, I definitely did not see the defender," Russell admitted.

Nor did Smith who an instant later was crashing helmet-first into the Scott Field turf after a wicked mid-air hit spun him upside-down and maybe even inside-out.

Smith somehow kept control for first down. "It was a perfect throw…but he put me in a bad situation! I didn't have time to think about the hit, I was thinking about the catch. I always tell him don't do me like that no more Tyler, please don't!"

Just kidding, of course. Though it might be that Russell has some residual revenge motive. After all, the first pass Smith ever caught off Russell was…an interception. They were playing at opposing junior highs and Smith picked Russell clean. Fortunately a year later they were on the same high school squad, same side of the ball, and as the quarterback said "Yeah, just for some reason we always were on the same page. I guess it was practice and stuff like that."

That they are still practicing and playing as a team came down to choosing State, after initial flirtations with Alabama. Three years later they're back in business with Russell either starting or alternating with Relf, and Smith opening every game as split-end on the same side usually as H-end Bumphis. Again, there is no prejudice in passing or play-calling, but…

"Tyler knows how I play and I know how he plays," Smith said. "It's just both of us doing our job. He expects me to be in a spot and I'll be in the spot. Yeah, it's special. It's special. I'm just glad to be here. He really got me up here, I got him up here. It's a blessing to be up here with him because he knows how I play and I know how he plays."

Not to mention how hard Russell is going to bring it sometimes. Though, the quarterback said, he doesn't know why Smith's paws are so prone to breaking and bruising. Besides, Russell said, Smith still caught that high school ball which broke the thumb anyway, so why the big deal?

"I don't know! He has good hands, sometimes he'll just frame it up and it will hit his fingers."

Smith is counting on more such shots coming his way as Mississippi State readies for the end-of-season matchups that will settle both bowl eligibility and holiday destination. Yes, this offense is built around ground-pounding and that is entirely understood. But making passing plays will only amplify opportunities for Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins to gain that ground in bigger bites. So, back to work said Smith.

"It's all a part of really wanting it. Me and Tyler always talked about how bad we wanted it. We just have to continue to get better as a unit."

ROTATION ROLE PLAYING: Who directs that unit remains a matter of weekly competition. Though in this case, the uncertain status of senior Relf after his second-quarter concussion last Saturday leaves the field to Russell. Right? Not quite, Russell said.

"Dylan has to be prepared, because you never know. He's getting a lot of reps and we're just going back-and-forth, trading like me and Chris did. Hopefully Chris will get back and start practicing, so all of us are prepared."

Prepared for yet another defensive style. No one claims Arkansas is as physical overall as LSU, Alabama, or South Carolina. But neither does any Dog downplay how the Razorbacks just come after you. And keep on coming. As Coach Dan Mullen said, this is a bunch that starts blitzing upon arrival.

Russell didn't experience any Arkansas attacks last season with Relf taking every snap. He's seen plenty of scouting tape though and knows what to anticipate.

"When they blitz us that should be a compliment to our offense, as far as throwing the ball," Russell said. "You've got to be prepared for getting the ball out. And once you start making those throws when they blitz they'll stop blitzing, you can get the run game and other stuff going, and you can just run your offense."

Easier schemed than done of course, but at least the Bulldogs aren't getting in a pre-game sweat yet. Nor does Russell count on offsetting Razorback rushes only by throwing quickly. It would still help if Relf is available to change the play-calling pace, though.

"A lot of defenses play me different than they play Chris, and vice-versa. A lot of times they drop back thinking I'm going to throw it and it just opens up the run for me. And I take what I can get. Chris likes to run so they'll load the box on him and the pass is open. It's just being prepared to do either one and whatever works best for us."

All that said…it is clear Russell has the honest ambition any truly competitive triggerman must own. He'll work within a rotation, but wants to be the guy out there. Nothing wrong with that attitude, either.

"Oh, definitely. The more I play I feel like the better I'm going to get. The more experience I get, understanding the defenses and knowing what my receivers are going to do. I definitely have gotten a lot more confidence out there.

It's just up to Coach Mullen, whatever he calls he's going to put us in the best position to try to win the ball game." Which Russell naturally interprets on his part as, well, get the ball in the end zone. Often as possible this weekend.

"Their offense is real good, and I know our defense is going to play good against them. But I know our offense is going to have to score a lot of points, and that's one thing we're focusing on in practice."

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