All eyes are on Ito Smith as the Golden Eagles gear up for the 2017 football season.
The senior running back from Mobile, Alabama racked up multiple accolades during the offseason after rushing for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016. In addition to being named to the C-USA Preseason All-Conference team for the second straight year, Smith was also named to the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award watch lists. Those awards are given at the end of every season to the best player and best running back in college football, respectively.
“All you got to do is just come out and watch him every Saturday,” said Head Coach Jay Hopson. “He’s a guy that creates stuff when there’s nothing there.
Now, Smith is tasked with not only producing results on the ground for Southern Miss, but also providing veteran leadership to an offense that will that will have new faces at multiple positions this season.
“Of course the younger guys coming in, they look up to the older guys,” Smith said. “Me just being a leader [means] just leading by example.”
The ability to create big plays on the ground is the most notable aspect Smith’s style of play. Smith averaged
5.5 yards per carry in 2016 and had runs of 20-plus yards in nine games last season, with his longest play coming on an 86-yard touchdown run against Savannah State in the second game of that season.
In order for Smith to continue to create those big plays in 2017, the new players along the offensive line will need to work together to create running lanes. While there may be some uncertainty as to who will start along the line to start this season, Smith believes the unit can be just as good as last season’s line.
“They’re gonna be just as good as they were last year,” he said. “We’ve moved a couple of guys around, [but] the line is shaping up really well.”
While the ground game will be a big part of the offense this season, Smith will be called on to contribute to the passing game as well. He finished third on the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2016, catching 43 passes and totaling 459 yards through the air. Still, Smith believes the wide receivers will allow him and the offense to be successful on many fronts.
“We’ve got a lot of speed with the wide receivers,” he said. “They’ve been doing a great job.
The question remains, however, as to who will be throwing passes to Smith and the Southern Miss receivers. Whether it be Kwadra Griggs, Keon Howard or a combination of both throughout the season, the quarterbacks will have a solid receiving threat in the backfield in Smith.
Southern Miss’ season-opening opponent Kentucky will bring new challenges to Smith and the Golden Eagle offense. After rushing for 173 yards and a touchdown in the Golden Eagles’ 44-35 win against the Wildcats’ last year, Smith will look to replicate that success against a Kentucky defense that is expected to employ a defensive strategy similar to what he faced last season.
“Basically they play the same defense,” he said. “We’re expecting them to do the same stuff they did last year.”
As Smith enters his senior season with the team, Coach Hopson appreciates what the running back brings to the table as a player who creates big plays.
“I just think he’s a tremendous, tremendous football player,” Hopson said. “He’s been a huge playmaker here at Southern Miss.”
Fans can see Smith in action for the first time this season during the season- opener against the Kentucky Wildcats at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:00 p.m. on Sep. 2.