COLUMBUS, Ohio - Any time a high-profile coach takes over a big time college football program, the new head man in charge is bound to face some attrition on his inherited roster. And when Urban Meyer took over Ohio State in November 2011, it wasn't any different.
By the time Meyer's first fall camp in Columbus started in August, a number of players- for a variety of reasons- had left Ohio State. This was not unexpected for Meyer, who was in the process of taking over the fourth college football program of his career.
What was unexpected, however, was that Rod Smith wasn't among those on his way out of town.
To say that Smith wasn't in good standing with Meyer when the two-time national champion coach officially took over the OSU program in January would be an understatement.
Entering his third season in Columbus, the redshirt sophomore running back was coming fresh off of a season that saw his playing time diminished due to fumbling issues and a temporary position switch to linebacker. The roller coaster that was the 2011 season for Smith was capped off in January, when he missed the team's flight to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.
That was enough for Meyer to make his assessment of Smith, which led to the new OSU coach telling the Fort Wayne, Ind. native that it might be best for him to get a fresh start somewhere else.
"The conversation in January is probably you're not going to make it; it's probably best you move on and play somewhere where you can play, because it's obvious you're not good enough to be here," Meyer said. "Real honest conversation."
Meyer even put transfer papers in front of Smith and his father, Roger Smith, during the conversation about Rod's place in his program. The younger Smith wasn't having it though; he wanted his fresh start to happen in Columbus.
But Smith's commitment to Meyer at the potential crossroads of his college career still didn't put him in his coach's good graces. At least not immediately.
During the offseason, OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton compared the physical attributes of the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Smith to Tarzan. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that at times, Smith had a tendency to act like the fictional character who was raised by apes.
After failing to pickup Meyer's playbook, Smith found himself behind veterans Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde on OSU's depth chart. Smith's struggles were even more apparent after fall camp, when was beaten out by true freshman Bri'onte Dunn to be Hyde's backup with Hall out with a foot injury.
In the Buckeyes' first three games of the season, Smith received a total of six carries, one of which resulted in an all-too-familiar fumble for the OSU running back. With Hyde out with an injury heading into the Buckeyes' game against California in the third week of the season, Smith was given the opportunity to fight for the right to start in his place, but ultimately didn't receive a single carry against the Golden Bears.
"It's frustrating any time you're not on the field," Smith said. "At the same time, I knew what I had to work on."
While Smith may have not touched the ball against California, he didn't go completely opportune-less. Meyer inserted him on the Buckeyes' punt block team, which the OSU coach claimed was a sign of progress for the Paul Harding high school product.
Smith made the most of his chance, holding a block on a Cal defender for more than eight seconds. His stellar special teams performance- coupled with the best week of practice in his college career- put a new confidence in Meyer about the Buckeyes back, and led to Smith jumping Dunn on the depth chart to be Hall's backup heading into OSU's game against UAB.
"Something clicked these last few weeks," Meyer said. "I mean, he's on a mission right now."
Prior to the Buckeyes' battle with the Blazers, Meyer promised Smith he'd do his best to get him into the game. The OSU coach stayed true to his word, calling Smith's number in the second quarter with the Buckeyes trailing 9-0 and at UAB's 16-yard line. From there, Smith attempted three consecutive rushes, which culminated with a 1-yard rushing touchdown to give the Buckeyes their first score of the game.
"When you get your carries, you've got to make them count," Smith said. "It meant a lot. It made me feel like I gained trust. I think I earned a little bit of respect."
Against the Blazers, Smith doubled his carry total on the season with six additional touches that went for 24 yards and his one score. Meyer typically used the power back once the Buckeyes had entered the Blazers' red zone and expects to continue to use him in the coming weeks, even with the expected return of Hyde.
"Absolutely, if he continues as is," Meyer said when asked if Smith remained in his game plan. "He's in the plans for several more years, too. He's a talented guy."
Smith said that it's a new mindset that's helped him gain the trust of Meyer, and it's one that he doesn't expect to change any time soon.
"Just really focusing more. Just running hard, knowing all of your assignments. Constantly running hard, moving the ball forward. That's mainly what I've been working on a lot," Smith said. "I'm not going to stop there. I'm want to keep moving forward and keep progressing."
As for Meyer, who was one signature away from having Smith off of his hands, the OSU coach is glad that his new goal line running back stayed. Not just for his sake or Smith's, but for future Buckeyes who may consider taking their talents elsewhere.
"What a great message for our entire team," Meyer said. "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."