A heralded wide receiver with speed to burn from Cleveland Glenville, Small entered OSU during the fall of 2006 with plenty of advance praise. After an academic situation left his enrollment in doubt, Small saw time as a true freshman and accurately predicted his first touchdown – an 11-yard scamper against Bowling Green in week six.
But after a difficult sophomore season that saw him battle an ankle injury suffered during fall camp for the entirety of the season, Small had an offseason he would assuredly have preferred to have done without. Although he declined to specify what was going on behind the scenes, it was obvious the coaching staff was attempting to send Small a big message.
First came a forced jersey change during the spring, when he had to give up his customary No. 4 for No. 82 – last worn by former tight end Andy Miller. Then, following a summer where quarterback Todd Boeckman said he was not always around for 7 on 7 workouts, came a curious omission in the team's fall media guide that listed Small with the team's walk-ons.
If the OSU coaches were trying to send Small a message, it appears he has heard them loud and clear.
"Yeah, I kind of looked at it like that," he said. "I looked at it as they're trying to set me back, but I'm not going to let them. It's a motivation thing. It's like, ‘Wow, they don't care about me, but then again they do.' It's just a big lesson that I need to learn. That's how I take it."
With his speed, Small is viewed as a potential home run hitter and a downfield threat that neither Brian Robiskie nor Brian Hartline can provide. The question simply appears to be whether or not he has his head on straight.
But after the goings-on of the past few months, wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell is confident Small can turn things around and be a consistent contributor this year.
"I'm very proud of the guy because he could have gone a couple different ways," he said. "In my opinion he has really stepped up and been a man about it. He understands where he is and what he needs to do. As a matter of fact, he said to me, ‘Coach, I'm just trying to do the right thing.' I said to him, ‘You are. Just keep doing what you're doing right now.' I'm proud of the guy."
Hazell makes it sound like Small might be out of head coach Jim Tressel's doghouse, but the wideout himself does not like that word.
"I don't really call it the doghouse," he said. "I had a couple mistakes. It really wasn't that big, but you call it what you want to. I'm still going to be here and I'm still going to do what I have to do."
Throughout the past few months, Small has relied on two other Tarblooders to help him cope. Current Miami Dolphins wideout Ted Ginn Jr. and his father, Glenville head coach Ted Ginn Sr., both spoke with him on an almost daily basis.
Now Small must assert himself as the team's No. 3 wide receiver behind Robiskie and Hartline. He is primarily battling with sophomore Dane Sanzenbacher for that right – and by Hazell's account, the two are almost dead even. The biggest advantage for Small is the fact that he has logged 149 minutes of action in 21 career games while Sanzenbacher has played in 12 games and seen 89 minutes of game action.
Robiskie said he has seen Small grow from the experience of the past few months.
"I think he's handled it very well," Robiskie said. "I think that with a lot of the stuff that's been going on, he's done a tremendous job as far as continuing to work, continuing to put a lot of that stuff behind him and to look forward to this season. I know he's excited."
But according to Small, his biggest contributions for the team this season will not come from his wide receiver position.
"Last year I was the third receiver coming in when it was a three-man set," he said. "Hopefully I can play that role this year, but mostly my mind is set on being a role player. I want to be where I can be when I can – mostly on punt return, kick return and special teams. We were very bad at special teams and we're trying to pick it up this year."
Asked if that meant he feels he will have a greater impact in special teams than on offense, Small simply said "yes."
Although Robiskie said Small had mentioned to him – jokingly – that his jersey was too big now that it has two numbers on it, Small said he was not bothered by the forced number change.
"It was hard, but I talked to my family and I felt in my mind that a number isn't really anything," he said. "In high school I was given No. 13. All through my life I've never really had a number that I've wanted, so I don't know what number I really like."
The task now is to redefine what his new number can stand for, Small said – and he has apparently taken a shine to the new look.
"I kind of like it, honestly," he said. "It's kind of like an NFL look. I look at it being like when you go the NFL and you don't really choose your number. A number can't change me but I can change the number."
It all adds up to a comfortable, confident Small who believes his best football still lies ahead.
"I feel like it's like my senior year in high school," he said. "I've got a feel for the game, I'm better at the game now so now I just feel like I'm comfortable. When you're comfortable, you play at your best abilities. That's how I feel right now."