Ito Smith has had 24 tries. The Atlanta Falcons’ third-year running back admits 2019 was the most difficult year of his 24 years of life.

Smith was looking to stake his claim in the Falcons’ backfield after 2018’s leading rusher Tevin Coleman departed to join the San Francisco 49ers.

Devonta Freeman was returning from an injury to start 2019. Smith and Freeman figured to be the pairing in the Falcons’ backfield for the duration of the 2019 season.

Smith was officially placed on injured reserve due to a neck injury on Nov. 9. He played in seven games for the Falcons before suffering his injury against the Los Angeles Rams in a week seven loss.

Once the season was done, Smith had only carried 22 times for 106 yards and one touchdown.

“Last year was the toughest year of my life being without football,” Smith said. “I’ve been playing since I was 4-years-old. Being away and watching the guys and me wanting to be out there with my teammates, I missed it a lot. It was the best decision for me to sit out the rest of the season. It was definitely a mental strain for me last year.”

Smith will get a second chance at his breakout season in 2020. The Falcons added Todd Gurley from the Rams to assume the lead running back duties.

Smith feels he will be a factor despite the addition of Gurley. The different abilities make Smith an intriguing compliment to Gurley.

Smith has caught 46 passes for 239 yards in his first two seasons in the National Football League. Smith welcomes the competition that is shaping up between himself, Gurley, Brian Hill and second-year running back Qadree Ollison.

“All of us have different skill-sets,” Smith said. “I can run and catch out the backfield. I feel like I have a different skill-set than the other guys. I’m really just excited. There’s going to be a lot of competition. That’s going to make everybody better.”

Smith has put an emphasis on getting his body in a good place to take advantage of his opportunity in 2020. Smith has healed fully from his neck injury, he’s lost some body fat and added some strength throughout his body.

In addition to the injury, Smith felt he struggled in pass protection last season. He now feels stronger, faster and healthier than he was at the start of last season.

“My body is feeling great and I’m healthy,” Smith said. “That’s important going into the season. I’m stronger and faster. I’m feeling really good… I feel like I wasn’t as strong as I could have been going into last season… I’ve cut down on my body fat, I’m feeling great and I’m in great shape. I’m really excited…I know my back is stronger, my neck is stronger, my upper body is stronger and my legs are stronger. That’s going to go a long way in what I’ve got to do this season.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided some complications to the scheduled arrival to training camp on July 28. There have been questions from players about the plans the league has put into place that focus on the safety of players reporting to team facilities for the first time since March.

Smith understands the concerns of players around the league that are in risky situations at home. Smith isn’t married and doesn’t have children yet.

He wants to get on the field as soon as he can, but he feels it should be safe for everyone involved.

“I want to get out there bad,” Smith said. “Everybody has to be safe. I don’t have a family. I don’t have a wife and kids. A lot of guys have wives that are pregnant. They have a greater risk than I would per say. I understand them on that concern. For me, I’m ready to get back out there. I miss football. I haven’t played since week eight last year. It’s long overdue for me… It’s going to be different. It’s the way of life right now. We’ve all got to make adjustments with life and get used to it for a while at least until everything gets calmed down. Everybody has to wear their mask so that we can get this thing under control.”

The NFL won’t have preseason games in 2020. Being on the field for practice will do for Smith until the season opens in September.

“I’ll be happy again,” Smith said with a laugh.

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