RB Ian Smart has returned kickoffs for the Bucs the past two weeks and also played 'gunner' on the punt team
Scoring 95 touchdowns in four college seasons, an all-levels NCAA record, didn't tire Ian Smart out. Running scout-team plays, taking some snaps with the first-team offense, returning kickoffs and covering punts in Tampa hasn't worn him down. Working hard to realize his NFL dream has energized the diminutive but talented running back, not sapped his strength.
Kindergarteners…now that's another matter.
Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came calling on September 22, Smart was about to look for work in his other chosen profession, teaching. The former C.W. Post start had been released at the end of training camp by the New York Jets for the second year in a row and the next few weeks hadn't brought any NFL phone calls. With a degree in physical education and experience at levels kindergarten through high school, Smart was planning to advance his alternate career by finding a high school teaching/coaching job.
It was not the plan of a man who had given up his football dream, but of one who didn't want to let any time go to waste. Even had the Bucs not called and put his teaching days on hold, Smart would have kept trying to make it in the NFL.
"I'm not ready to walk away from this game," said Smart. "That's something I really don't want to do. I feel like I still have a lot of improving, a lot of growing to do. I'm just going to continue to work until I got better."
His degree and a career in teaching will be there when his playing days are over. He says he has a passion for coaching football, which is why he is gravitating towards the higher grades. Besides, those kindergarteners are tougher than they look.
"Those kids are really energetic," said Smart with a laugh. "They'll wear you out."
You could say that big things come in little packages, which is a message that Smart has been delivering on the football field for years. Though he played at a smaller school and went undrafted in 2003, Smart put up numbers at Post that are hard to fathom, let alone ignore. His career rushing yardage of 6,647 yards is the fourth highest in NCAA history, his touchdown total works out to a Priest Holmes-like 24 per season and his career ended with a 2,023-yard, 30-touchdown senior year.
Two camps with the Jets didn't get the 5-8, 192 speedster into the NFL, however, and even the Bucs originally put him on their practice squad. Though he was promoted to the active roster on November 24, Smart knows he has a lot of hard work ahead of him to have even a fraction of the success he had as a collegian.
"It's going to be tough, because at this level it's the best of the best," he said. "But if you continue to work you're only going to get better. I'm just going to continue to work and see where it goes from there."
Smart was promoted to the 53-man roster in time for the Nov. 28 game at Carolina but was put on the eight-man inactive list that week. Fortunately, Head Coach Jon Gruden had several ideas of how he wanted to use Smart, and found a way to keep him active on game day the past two weeks. In the Bucs' 27-0 win over Atlanta, Smart swept around right end and burst for 25 yards on his first NFL carry. Last weekend at San Diego, he caught two passes along the line of scrimmage and got five yards each time.
Smart said he was 'psyched' to make such a big gain on his first touch, but he doesn't expect to suddenly get 10 carries a game because of it.
"I see myself as a role player," he said, knowing that rookies and first-year men usually have to make their marks on special teams. "Wherever they need me at, I'll jump in and do whatever. I'll run down and cover kicks, I'll run down and cover punts, I'll return kicks…I just consider myself a role player."
During the 2004 offseason, the Buccaneers worked extensively on a 'rocket' package that would put Michael Pittman and Charlie Garner on the field at the same time. However, Garner lasted only three weeks into the season before landing on injured reserve, just in time for Pittman to return from a three-game suspension. Pittman has put together perhaps his finest season as a Buccaneer in Garner's absence, but Gruden would still like to use some of his exciting two-tailback stuff.
That's how Smart may be able to get some more snaps over the last three games. Good hands and quickness make him a capable receiver, if a somewhat small target. And he obviously knows what to do when he's handed the rock. In addition, he has taken over as the primary kickoff return man the past two weeks and has seen work as a 'gunner' on the punt team.
That's a lot of roles for a man who may have been judged as too small to make it in the NFL. But Smart believes he can use his size as a positive.
"I'm a small guy, so I usually get lost behind the line," he said. "I use that to my advantage and try to get behind a blocker, then make my cut off of that."
That's an observation worthy of a student of the game.
Or maybe a teacher.