BOCA RATON – New FAU running backs coach Kevin Smith is all too familiar with the agony of defeat.
A third-round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2008 NFL Draft, Smith was a rookie on one of the worst teams in league history, rushing for 976 yards and eight touchdowns for the 0-16 Lions. Smith played five total seasons with the Lions, only having one winning season, in 2011, before retiring after the 2012 season.
After a stint at the University of Central Florida as a quality control administrator to Scott Frost, Smith is earning rave reviews in his first opportunity as a position coach.
“He’s great – he’s showed us a lot of tools that helped him be successful in the NFL and he’s done a good job at relaying those tools to us,” running back Marcus Clark said. “He knows exactly what we’re going through.”
While new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will get all of the attention, it’s Smith who is directly tasked with a running backs unit that features two of Conference USA’s best running backs in Buddy Howell and Devin Singletary. In 2016, the two combined for 25 touchdowns – 13 of which came from Howell, setting a school record for the most rushing touchdowns in a season – and 1,849 rushing yards.
Based on what the running backs have seen from Smith so far, they have reason to be optimistic about a bigger season in 2017.
“He went down as one of the greats in [UCF] history so everything he says, it’s really like free knowledge,” Singletary said. “We’re in a new offense, so we’ve been working on small details and little things [with Smith].”
Smith was part of a 2008 NFL Draft class that fielded other notable names at running back, including Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and Jamaal Charles. Arkansas’ Darren McFadden – Lane Kiffin’s final first-round pick with the Oakland Raiders – was the first running back taken in the draft with the fourth overall pick.
That NFL experience, which also includes a playoff appearance in 2011 and playing in the same division as former league MVP Adrian Peterson, is a boost for his new students.
“It helps me out a lot because it’s like the blueprint,” Singletary said. “He’s basically showing me the blueprint of what I need to do to get to the pros.”
Not unlike defensive assistant Monte Kiffin, who has been using film of Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor when working with the Owls’ secondary, Smith has used film of popular NFL players while working with the running backs. Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, who attended Michigan State while Smith was still with the Lions, has been a common example in the film room.
Smith’s arrival in Boca Raton also had an unexpected domino effect on the defense, as walk-on linebacker Hosea Barnwell – who kept an open line of communication with Smith when the latter was at UCF and was planning to enroll there for the spring semester – instead hung around FAU before trying out for the Owls.
At a position riddled with injuries, Barnwell stepped up at linebacker in the spring and could challenge returning players for snaps in the summer.
Smith’s methods and teaching skill have caught the attention of his boss.
“I think Kevin’s done a good job – this is his first real year of coaching and he brings experience as a player,” Kiffin said. “The players really like him and he’s very passionate about the game – he loves playing the game and the players feel that from him. He’s done a good job.”