Urban Meyer didn't mind opening the door.
"The conversation in January is, ‘You're probably not going to make it. It's probably best you move on and play somewhere you can play, because it's obvious you're not good enough to be here,' " Meyer said.
Known for his blunt assessments of all of his inherited players, Meyer had no qualms moving Ohio State forward without Smith, even if the running back was one of the more intriguing youthful players on the roster.
The 6-3, 228-pounder already had two years to prove he is the dynamic runner he was in high school. As a redshirt freshman a year ago, Smith was moved to linebacker in the middle of the session before off-the-field issues caused him to miss Ohio State's trip to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
Meyer knew something was missing.
"Real honest conversation," Meyer said of his talk with Smith. "Had a talk with his father, great guy. Came down and sat in my office, said this is exactly where your son is. The option is there and we'll sign the paper and move on. He wanted to stay."
Smith passes the look test. At a glance, it's only fair to assume he's one of the most talented players on Ohio State's roster. His combination of size and speed should translate into the perfect runner the current staff is looking for.
Despite the tough decision to stick with the Buckeyes, Smith didn't make any advancement on the depth chart through spring and fall camp, even with starter Jordan Hall missing all of preseason camp with a foot injury.
Replacement starter Carlos Hyde suffered an MCL sprain against UCF, making both of the Buckeyes' top running backs questionable against California two weeks ago. Instead of Smith getting into the game against the Bears, Hall made a quick return and handled a heavier load than most would have expected in his first action back from injury.
"He didn't do great as the spring went on, moved on, moved on did not have a great summer," Meyer said of Smith. "Then something clicked these last few weeks. I mean, he's on a mission right now. He's a good guy. I love Rod Smith. I love guys that turn it around."
Two weeks ago, Smith was considered a fumble-prone running back not fit for extended action. In Ohio State's most recent win over UAB, Smith rushed six times for 24 yards and scored a touchdown. Add in multiple carries in the red zone at crucial points in the game.
"He earned that right to carry the football at Ohio State and score that touchdown," Meyer said. "That wasn't a mop up. We had a very set 12 package, one back two tight ends. And he was the back to go in that game.
"So what a great message for our entire team, because there's guys lower higher he was lower than most guys on this team, to see him rebound, his grades are doing well. He's got a good look about him. It's called maturity and it's happening."
Hyde is expected to return for the Buckeyes in the team's Big Ten opener at Michigan State this weekend, so there's no telling if there will be room for Smith moving forward this season. Now a redshirt sophomore, Meyer said he expects Smith to continue to be in the plans for years to come if he continues his current trajectory.
"It all comes from practice," Smith said. "I showed them that I could do it in practice and my number was called. They gave me an opportunity, and I feel like I did a good job. It's frustrating any time you're not on the field, but at the same time I know what I have to work on. I feel like they understand that I finally understand it and am getting it. I feel like they have more confidence in me now."