January 24, 2008

NFL draft prospect Kevin Smith, who led the nation in rushing and scoring last season at Central Florida, uses his eyesight to see the cuts and moves he needs to make on the field. But he also has the vision to see greatness where others can only find only mediocrity.

"I can't really see that well from far away, but if you put a ball in my hands, I can see the Statue of Liberty from here," joked Smith, who was a half-hour north of his hometown of Miami as he said this.

"I'm not bragging, but if you ask me, no other running back in the draft has my vision. That's why you don't see me take big hits. That's why I have a knack for scoring touchdowns. That's why my carries-to-turnover ratio is excellent. It's my vision, my smarts and my competitive fire."

It is Smith's competitiveness that helped him decide to leave Central Florida after his record-breaking junior season, one in which he ran for 2,567 yards, scored 30 touchdowns and was named a first-team All-America by SI.com. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder saw other top running backs give up their senior seasons, including Darren McFadden of Arkansas, Jonathan Stewart of Oregon and Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois -- all projected first-round picks.

"Don't let me be the last [top] running back in college," he said. "If all the best guys are coming out, then I want to battle with them for the first round. I am a competitive guy."

Toward that end, Smith will attend the NFL Combine Feb. 20 in Indianapolis and will work out for select NFL teams in March. The general consensus is that he's a second-round pick, at best. But Smith, who signed with agent Drew Rosenhaus lastweekend, is working to change that perception.

Since deciding to turn pro on Jan. 8, he has been training with Pete Bommarito at the Perfect Competition facility in Davie. There, he and 35 other prospects train six days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The athletes are placed on specific diets designed to maximize their potential and are also put through an agonizing gauntlet of weightlifting and speed-running drills.

"Pete won today," Smith said of his hard-driving trainer. "He got the best of me."

Smith gets his share of wins, though, even when he is in the classroom taking the controversial Wonderlic test, which most NFL teams use to judge a player's intelligence.

"I don't know why they think that is so important," Smith said. "I am not claiming to be the smartest guy around, but I got a 16 the first time I took the test, which is about average for running backs."

He's not so free with information when it comes to his 40-yard dash time. The knock on Smith is that while he is a tough, durable and productive back, he lacks the game-breaking speed that would vault him up the draft board.

"It's a secret," he said of his current 40 time. "My goal is to be under a 4.45. I know that's what the scouts want to see. Let me put it like this: I've never been bad at anything that I have worked at. And I'm working at this hard."

Among other things, Bommarito tapes Smith's runs and then breaks it down with his pupil. "Kevin had some deficiencies in his start technique and in the way he decelerated before the finish line," Bommarito said. "He overcame those deficiencies very quickly."

Bommarito compares Smith's long-striding, up-right running style to Adrian Peterson, a high first-round pick in 2007, who went on to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Smith would love to emulate Peterson's pro credentials. But he already has him beat in college. In fact, only the legendary Barry Sanders (2,628 yards in 1988) rushed for more yards in a single college season than Smith (see chart).

Hearing the huge numbers being discussed, one of Smith's fellow draft prospects at Perfect Competition teased: "You didn't play anyone!"

Smith shot back: "I guess Texas was nobody. I guess Mississippi State was nobody."

And that is typical of the Smith story -- doubters abound. It has happened ever since high school, when Smith was switched from running back to safety as a senior.

Given what we know now, it was a horrendous decision for Miami's Southridge High. But first-year head coach Rodney Hunter had his reasons at the time. "We didn't have much of an offensive line," Hunter said. "I did not think Kevin could last the season at running back. That's why we moved him to free safety.

"He enjoyed playing safety. He never objected, never complained. He did ask a few times if we could get him some carries at running back, and we did that."

Smith said he accepted the new position for a simple reason. "I"m a football player," said Smith, who intercepted four passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown as a senior. "If you put me at center, I will make the best of it."

The position switch probably kept him from getting a chance to sign with a major-conference team. Florida State, which recruited him during his junior season, stopped calling when he moved to safety. Florida did not recruit him at all.

And what about Miami, his hometown team?

"The 'Canes never even called me," Smith said with a loud cackle, seemingly still shocked by Miami's lack of, well, vision. "I remembered when I told people I was going to sign with Central Florida. People would ask me, 'what's that, a junior college?'"

Before Smith, the school's claim to fame was quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who is still the Knights' only first-round NFL draft pick. Last season, Smith helped the Knights set a school record with 10 wins, qualifying for a bowl game. They also set a school record with a seven-game win streak.

Still, some Knights fans were upset when Smith announced he was turning pro, especially since he had announced before the bowl game that he would stay at UCF.

"It was a tough decision, but I gave UCF all I had," Smith said. "A lot of people said that if I came back, I would be the Heisman frontrunner, the talk of the nation. But after the bowl game, I thought about it more. All those people who were telling me to come back, were they going to take care of my mom if I got hurt?"

Pamela Smith, a 50-year-old teacher, raised Kevin and older brother Cedric, 23, as a single mother. Pamela and the boys' father, Mario, divorced soon after Kevin was born. Pamela and her boys also withstood Hurricane Andrew and a some serious health problems that plagued Cedric early in his life.

When he was six months old, Cedric nearly died from spinal meningitis. Six years later, while riding his bike, Cedric was struck by a car and miraculously survived.

Now Kevin wants to give back to his mom. The only job he ever had was for a couple of months in high school, earning $375 every other week for putting up guard rails on the Florida Turnpike.

Smith was asked if he could anticipate what it would be like to make millions in the NFL.

"I can't even imagine," he said. "I just know it will be spent well. Not even spent -- invested. The first thing I am going to do is open a day care for my mom to run. We are going to call it Pam's Place. I can see it now ..."

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