TEMPE, Ariz. — From goat to hero: Welcome to Rick Smith’s sophomore season.
The second-year Sun Devil wide receiver suffered from a case of the drops at the beginning of the year. Now, however, he’s once again become one of quarterback Taylor Kelly’s favorite targets.
The latest example: The game at Utah.
With less than three minutes remaining, ASU was down five and facing a second-and-10 from the Utah 14. Kelly faked the handoff to running back Marion Grice, looked left and found Smith coming across the middle. He made the catch, shook off the defender and ran it in for a touchdown.
“Big-time catch,” head coach Todd Graham said. “That was the game winner.”
The week prior at Washington State, Smith caught three passes for a season-high 79 yards, including a juggling 51-yard touchdown in which he twice tipped the ball before hauling it in.
“No substitute for experience,” Graham said. “The thing that really molds you as a player and even as a coach is the tough times. You learn more by experiencing it then somebody telling you about it. He’s a guy that’s really grown up in the last few weeks; a guy that’s a big time, essential part of what we’re doing offensively.”
Smith, who with 17 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns has already surpassed his totals from a year ago, said he never lost confidence even though he lost his starting job following the game at Stanford.
“What changed really was my dedication and hard work,” he said after practice Wednesday. “I’ve been really focused and determined to do really good and so I’ve just been putting my mind to that.”
Smith credits the extra work he’s put in at practice, studying the playbook and watching film for the turnaround; all of which has resulted in seven catches for 115 yards in the past two games. Only fellow sophomore D.J. Foster has put up better receiving numbers (12 catches for 121 yards) over the same stretch.
“I needed more but I didn’t put enough effort to do it and I saw the buildup it was to non-success,” said Smith, alluding to the dropped passes against Wisconsin and a fumble against Notre Dame. “It bothered me a lot…I had to just sit back and come within myself and talk and go to where I know if I work hard here, it will pay off there. I just kept doing that and here it is.”
After five straight games coming off the bench, Smith has regained his starting spot. He opened with the first team offense as the third wide receiver at Utah.
“Of course you feel good when you’re making plays; anyone would. I’m happy about that,” he said. “I’m going to keep working to continue to make plays and help the team win.”