Smith, he of the well-known injury history, reported to the morning practice session as the first-team right guard, just as predicted. He wasn't even wearing any extra protection on the left knee repaired last September following a third-game ligament tear. Though, it turned out, no bracing was required given a pretty light work load.
"I did some drills," he said. And not much more. Once the session switched from straight drills to seven- and eleven-man team work, Smith took off his helmet and found a sideline observer's spot. That was it for the Dog's day as the coaching staff carefully, even cautiously, scripts their leading lineman's load in early camp.
"My role is to get myself ready I just do whatever coach is asking me. I mean I'm 114% right now so I'm ready already. It's just a matter of time." How much time would that be, before Smith is turned loose like any healthy blocker? "I can't really say, it's all on the coaches, whenever they tell me."
What the coaches, in particular Dan Mullen, tell everyone is just how much the fifth-year senior means to this offense. Not just the line but the entire attack. Mullen has often called Smith the most talented lineman on the roster and few will argue. Especially those who saw the difference Smith made when did put in his one full varsity season, 2010, in a three-guard rotation. For that matter had he not suffered the first of his three injuries, a truly awful one to an ankle in August 2008, Smith would have been starter as a true freshman.
Now here he is hoping—no, make that planning—on playing another complete campaign, as are his coaches by their careful camp-ing script. Oh, and about that ‘best blocker' label? "I take it as a challenge. Because right now I'm not where I want to be. I want to the best in the group but I also want to be best in the nation. Until that happens I ain't satisfied."
And until told to take his position for-real, Smith has to be satisfied with watching. Or offering his advice, something he's actually enjoying. "Yeah, I need them to give me a whistle! And a ball to carry around." That was a reference to the spring when many days Smith would do his re-hab jogging while toting a football…something very few offensive guards have much experience with obviously.
"I'm working on my skills! They're going to put in a package where I'm going to be a running back. And Gabe is going to be a fullback." Fellow guard Jackson's view on that topic was not available but would have been fun. Younger linemen aren't as likely to talk back, though true frosh OC Devon Desper and OT Cole Carter did seem to welcome the older Dog's tips today.
"Because they were kind of new. And I really like coaching them, they give what they've got."
For now, former walk-on Ben Beckwith has Smith's first-team position at right guard in team periods. Beckwith surpassed freshman Justin Malone at the end of spring training and has stayed there to open August. Smith said he hasn't told Beckwith not to get too comfy working with the first squad.
"Nah, I want Ben to be in there. So if things don't work out with me all the way we've got somebody and we've got somebody and we're not going to fall back, you know."
Just don't mistake that comment for fatalism about staying healthy. Having come back from three injuries already Smith is not playing—or practicing—scared. Far from it. Sure, he admits, there are mixed feelings for now between wanting to get out in the August action and staying careful. "A little of both," he said.
"But I'm ready. 114%!"