Kevin Smith averaged an eye-popping 4.9 yards per carry for the Lions
last season. (Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- At 9:35 in the morning, 20 or so minutes after the Detroit Lions' Monday practice had kicked off, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best emerged from the team's training facility and sauntered side-by-side onto the field.
Their teammates, already working up a sweat on an increasingly warm morning, hardly noticed. This had become, after all, an all-too-familiar site for the Lions. Best, supposed to be the answer to Detroit's run game woes after being taken in the first round of the 2010 draft, has been out since suffering the latest in a series of concussions in Detroit's sixth game last season; Leshoure, expected to be Best's perfect complement after Detroit spent a second-rounder on him in 2011, has never had so much as a preseason game carry after tearing his Achilles last summer and injuring his hamstring recently.
The Lions have issues at cornerback, safety and along the offensive line. But this -- the possibility of entering the year without their projected Nos. 1 and 2 backs -- might be the most worrisome problem.
Or it would be, if not for Kevin Smith.
Two summers ago, Smith was in the same spot that Best and Leshoure now stood: Injured. Frustrated. Watching someone else take his carries.
He has no intention of going back.
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"When I'm healthy, I can do some good things on the football field," Smith said at the conclusion of the Lions' practice. "It feels good to be healthy ... it's a blessing."
In a city spoiled by Barry Sanders for a decade and jolted by his retirement prior to the 1999 season, Smith was tabbed, as a third-round pick in 2008, as the player who could help Detroit resolve its longstanding struggles at running back. But the Lions finished 0-16 in Smith's first year, Smith blew out his ACL late in 2009 and, in 2010, Smith needed thumb surgery and wound up back on injured reserve.
Thrilled with what Best had shown them in his 2010 rookie season, the Lions decided not to bring Smith back. A mere eight months later, with Leshoure on injured reserve and Best hurting, the Lions reopened their doors.
In seven regular season games, Smith rushed for 356 yards, had 179 yards receiving and scored seven touchdowns. Despite battling a high ankle sprain, he started for Detroit in its first playoff game in more than a decade.
When he hit free agency again this offseason, the Lions opted to keep their unexpected insurance policy around.
"We saw him come back last year and give us a big boost," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said of Smith earlier in training camp. "Particularly early, he put a lot of the injury things behind him. Kevin's a very consistent player, knows our offense inside and out, and he's a leader for us."
This has never been a question of talent. During Smith's junior season at Central Florida, he rushed for 2,567 yards, the second highest total in FBS (Division I) history behind only ... Sanders. Smith also carried the ball a mind-blowing 450 times that year, still the NCAA single-season record.
The Lions traded up in the 2008 draft to land Smith, and he nearly hit 1,000 yards rushing in his rookie season despite playing on that abysmal winless team. He was already over 1,000 total yards the following year when he blew out his knee in the fourth quarter of a 48-3 loss to the Ravens.
By the time Smith returned to action, Best had inherited his starting job.
"People don't realize it takes you a long time to come back from [injuries]," said Lions guard Stephen Peterman, a member of the Lions since 2006 and fixture on their offensive line since '07. "It's tough because as a player, you don't want to sit out. You don't want to let your guys down -- you signed a contract and you're not doing the job you're paid to do."
The unceremonious end to Smith's initial tenure in the Motor City only made his triumphant return that much more bewildering. And two weeks after re-signing with Detroit, when Smith topped 200 total yards and scored three times in a critical win over Carolina, some jaws likely dropped.
"That Carolina game ..." Peterman recalled, "if we hadn't had him, we wouldn't have won that game."
"I had a good feel early, made a play early, and I was able to carry it out there the whole game," Smith said of that 49-35 win over Cam Newton's crew in Detroit. "I think I'm more effective, like anybody, when you're touching the ball and you're able to get in a rhythm and carry that confidence through the game.
"Just allows you to play fast and kind of bring your swag to the game."
The Lions are placing a lot of faith in that "swag" this season. Recently, Schwartz said that Best, as of yet uncleared by doctors to return to full-contact practices, is "week-to-week" in his recovery. Leshoure, meanwhile, has been out since late July and, even if he gets back to 100 percent, must sit out the first two games of the regular season due to a suspension.
Detroit, though, may be in better shape at running back than most realize. Behind Smith on the current version of the depth chart are Keiland Williams, who had a strong preseason opener and isn't afraid to go between the tackles; Joique Bell, a promising young back plucked from New Orleans' practice squad last season; and Stefan Logan, a versatile three-year NFL vet.
"It's a combination of pushing each other and playing off each other," Williams said. "We all want to be the starting running back but we know that's not the case."
That job, for now and possibly for the extended future, belongs to Smith.
"I look at myself as a starter, no matter what," Smith said. "I've always been a starter, that's how I view it.
"Being with the first team, it's not an ego trip for me. Whether it's the first team, second team, third team, eighth team, I just prepare to play. No matter who's in front of me, who's behind me, I come to work with my hard hat."
The injury concerns figure to follow Smith for the rest of his career -- "I'm feeling good ... my body's in great shape," he told SI earlier this week. To a certain extent the Lions are approaching those past bumps and bruises the same way they view Matthew Stafford's shoulder issues from the 2009 and '10 seasons: as fluke occurrences that do nothing to detract from what Smith can bring to the table now.
While the Carolina game was far and away Smith's high-water mark last season, he's the type of all-around back who should thrive in Detroit's explosive offense. The Lions' loaded receiving corps and talented tight end duo of Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, plus the prolific right arm of Stafford, means that their running backs see lots of spread-out defenses and one-on-one coverages in passing situations.
That's all well and good. Smith couldn't care less what scheme Detroit runs.
"I think that my skill set fits any system," Smith said. "I can catch, I can pass-protect, I can do it all. Anything a complete back can do, I can do.
"Whatever system likes complete backs, that's a good system for me."
Smith's solid work as a blocker may have tipped the scales in his favor when the Lions went looking for a back last season. Smith said that pass-protecting and picking up blitzers is "an attitude you have to carry," one that has been pressed upon him since his coaches at UCF told him that he would not be able to play in the NFL if he didn't excel as a blocker.
There is little question that Smith is at the top of the heap among Detroit's active running backs in that aspect of the game. Of course, that's the case for just about every area -- Smith is Detroit's top option in the backfield, and he has a chance to keep things that way if and when Best and Leshoure are more than just casual observers.
It has been a topsy-turvy road for Smith, but he feels like he is finally back where he belongs: atop the Detroit Lions' depth chart at running back.
"It's always good," he said, "whenever you get a chance."