Since suffering a knee injury at Baltimore last season, fans and media have wondered whether Smith will be ready for the 2010 season.
Now that the Detroit Lions have drafted California running back Jahvid Best, Smith won’t have as much pressure on him to get back, though the chances of him actually letting up are pretty much non-existent.
“Self-encouragement is the biggest motivation that one person needs,” said Smith. “I can have everybody pump me up all day every day, but that doesn’t mean the end result is great. So I encourage myself to get up every day and work as hard as I can to get back.”
Smith started rehab as soon as he was permitted, and has progressed steadily with weight lifting and work with the team trainers.
At the team’s first organized team activity (OTA) last Tuesday, he was able to run routes, getting in and out of breaks and participating in handoffs and other individual drills.
“I probably won’t be doing anything major for awhile,” said Smith. “Camp time is my goal. I can really start and get involved in some team activities. But, until now, I’ll just be doing my individual stuff and continue to work out.”
Even though he is doing well, there has been a lot of speculation surrounding his physical condition and whether he will be able to bounce back next year.
Smith knows football is “an opinionated game” and makes a point not to seek out the critics.
“I don’t listen but I hear,” he said. “I’ve had times where people didn’t think I was able to play college football, period. Then people thought I was one of the greatest running backs to play college football.
“Now it’s in the pros. You’ve got some people who don’t think I can be a star in this league and you’ve got some people who think I can. The No. 1 person that matters is myself because no one else – not the coaches, not any other players, not anybody’s opinion matters – because I have to get myself ready and I have to play on Sundays.”
As of this past week, another player has been thrown into that mix.
Detroit took Best with the 30th-overall pick in the draft, trading back up into the first round to get him.
Smith says he’s seen highlight clips of Best – a speed back who ran the top time at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine – during the college football season. When asked whether he feels Best would be a good compliment to his own style of running, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“I think he’s a good compliment because he’s able to make it to this level and because of what he was able to do in college,” said Smith. “I think that he’s a good addition. Obviously if we picked him up in the first round, he’s someone who can help the team.
“I’m all welcome. I like that type of stuff – anything that can help us win, I’m all about winning.”
Bringing in new talent is part of the game. “It’s a part of the business,” said Smith. “I’ve never been one to shy away from competition.”
To imagine a first-round back joining the roster is to believe tension could form between him and Smith, who has been the team’s starter for the past two seasons.
But Smith’s attitude is far from that.
His primary focus is winning football games. His focus will continue to be on getting back and becoming a better player in his own right, but that won’t stop him from trying to help the team through helping Best.
“The best advice I can give him is to just keep at what he’s done to get him here,” said Smith. “His hard work and dedication got him here. Just stay at it, be willing to stay in the classroom a little extra.
“Get that edge and try to be one of the smartest players on the field and he’ll be just fine.”
That is the same approach Smith is taking right now in terms of his own rehab process.
He can’t participate in team activities, so he is studying the game and doing what he can to progress physically.
“It’s frustrating seeing guys out here and not be able to use this time during OTAs to get yourself better,” he said. “On the flip side, mentally I can get myself better. With an ACL, you never know how you’re going to be physically on the field until you do it.”
Smith has spoken to tight end
Pettigrew actually experienced the same injury to his other knee in high school, so he has experience with the recovery process.
“He said you come back stronger,” said Smith. “I can feel it. It’s a mental and physical challenge, you’ve got to be up for it to get yourself better. Every day I’m working and just continue to focus.”