“It just feels good to be here. Never take for granted being part of that 53,” he said Monday after returning to practice for the first time in over a week due to an injured ankle.
“There was one point of my career where the day of the final cuts there was no question and I didn’t have to worry about it. Now I can say, ‘thank you’ when someone congratulates me on making the 53. Now it just brings it into prospective. It’s something special and is humbling.”
The number of most importance when it comes to Smith isn’t 53, though, it's 11, as in the 11 starters on offense Sunday when the Lions begin the regular season against the Rams. Smith is expected to be among them.
It was last year Week 11 that Smith infused some much-needed life into the Lions run game when he rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Panthers.
That performance came just two weeks after he was signed off his couch. Unfortunately for both him and the Lions, he suffered a high ankle sprain against the Packers the following week and wasn’t the same the rest of the season. He finished the year with 356 yards (4.9 average) and four rushing touchdowns. He added three more receiving touchdowns in seven games.
“When he came back after his layoff last year it was sort of one game getting his feet wet and then he stepped right into the lead role,” head coach Jim Schwartz said of Smith.
“That’s always been his mentality going back to high school, college at Central Florida, here. That’s never changed and you want players that have that kind of confidence and want to be on the field that way.”
It isn’t like entering Week 1 as the Lions starter is unfamiliar territory for Smith. He was drafted in the third round by the team in 2008 and entered Week 1 of that season against the Falcons as the starter. He also started the 2009 season as the Week 1 starter against the Saints.
It wasn’t until 2010 when the Lions drafted Jahvid Best and Smith was coming off a torn ACL that he lost his starting job.
“You have to be resilient in the NFL,” Schwartz said. “There are so many things that go on from roster decisions and salaries and injuries and everything else. It’s part of this job description.
“You need to be able to bounce back from failures; you need to be able to bounce back from losses. You need to be able to go forward and learn from it and put it in your past. He’s had some injury setbacks and he’s done a good job bouncing back. As have a lot of other players. Football is very important to Kevin.”
Smith should get the first crack in the backfield at a Rams defense that ranked 31st against the run last season, allowing more than 152 yards per game on the ground. They are expected to be a little better than that this season under new head coach Jeff Fisher, but there should still be opportunities for Smith and others in the run game.
“We’ll see what happens,” Smith said of Sunday. “We have to go out there and play well.”