Slowly but surely, the man they call "24k" is becoming The Man in Allen Park.
During Friday's morning practice session, Smith collected the bulk of reps with the first-team offense, and seemed comfortable in the process. Since camp began in late July, Smith's gradual transition has been obvious to everyone in attendance. A beleaguered rookie initially, Smith's footwork, speed and even blocking ability has improved to the point where the team feels comfortable with him lining up behind quarterback Jon Kitna.
"Yeah - he's just relentless on SAM (an outside blitzing linebacker) in there. I mean, this guy is just a good student," said Marinelli earlier in the week. "He's very prideful about his assignments; how he does things; the passing game. He likes this game of football, likes to play it."
Added Marinelli on Friday, "He's picking up the blitzes well; routes and doing all the things we're asking him to do. It's going to be great competition."
But it is Smith's running ability -- the same shifty, explosiveness that helped him accrue 2,567 yards as a junior at Central Florida in 2007 -- that is turning heads. "24k" (or, perhaps, "34k" as his jersey suggests) and his accompanying flair has demanded the attention of fans, media and coaching staff; with a team that stars receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, that's saying something.
Rookie running back Kevin Smith is
poised to become the team's starter.
"I think that's one of his strengths," said Marinelli. "I think he can cut. I think you've seen that here, just the way he can cut. When he cuts, he makes that one cut and he goes northward. He's a vertical player."
Smith has commented already that Detroit's zone blocking scheme, implemented in 2008, is similar to what he ran at the collegiate level. It also happens to be the same strategy that Bell excelled under as a member of the Denver Broncos. And with a resurgent Brian Calhoun (like Smith, a former third-round pick himself), Smith is being handed nothing. In training camp, reps with the first-team offense are akin to a badge of honor.
Marinelli believes Smith is earning everything.
"I think he's had a very good camp," said Marinelli. Everything we kind of saw coming out in all the OTAs, some of the things that we've seen, I said: 'Well we've got to wait and see when we get the pads on him.' He's physical. The one thing he did in college is broke tackles. He's a strong back. So now we get into the preseason game and get another feel of him."
The Lions head coach reiterated Smith's dedication to training camp, and how the rookie has adopted and groomed his role in Detroit.
" I'll never forget it, I asked (Smith at the combine): how do you spend your off-season?," said Marinelli. 'Getting my armor ready.' And there was no smile, it was just: 'I'm just getting my armor ready in the off-season.' That means he works. He's come here and he's been the same guy, every day. He really is, just a very serious, very determined young man."
Detroit will use a running back-by-committee in the preseason before committing to a starter. While a rotation that includes Bell is still possible, the team's August 7 affair with the defending Super Bowl champ New York Giants will be the first taste of what's to come.