Could Michael Smith, a rookie and a seventh-round draft pick, end up as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' primary third-down back in 2012? If you want Smith himself to weigh in on that possibility, you'll probably need to rephrase the question.
It's not that Smith is insulted by the question, per se. It's more that he feels limited by it.
Smith would happily take every third-down snap the Buccaneers would like to give him this fall, after he takes care of the initial task of making the regular-season roster. Smith, in fact, will take on any task the team chooses to give him, from returning kickoffs to covering punts to running between the tackles. The point he is seeking to prove, the point that can get lost if you pigeonhole him as a 'third-down back,' is that he can do all those things. In the NFL. Right now.
"I can do that, I can do anything the team wants me to do," said Smith of the third-down role that conjures images of a Darren Sproles-like scatback with speed and good hands. "I'm here for the team. I'm trying to be a Buccaneer all the way. I'm 100 percent in, so whatever they expect me to do – kick return, punt return, special teams, anything – I'm out there just working hard and trying to participate in everything. I'm getting involved in everything they want me to do, full-speed."
Smith was out there on the field Thursday with the rest of the Buccaneers' rookies and first-year players, getting a week-long head start on training camp, which opens for the veterans next Thursday. But he wasn't alone. Two-thirds of Tampa Bay's six-person field of tailbacks heading into camp are rookies, including first-round pick Doug Martin. The other two are Mossis Madu, who has nine games of NFL experience, and incumbent starter LeGarrette Blount, who is going into just his third NFL season. The Buccaneers have reworked their backfield with youth and, they believe, talent, and there is going to be stiff competition for the football over the next six weeks. Blount and Martin are understandably considered the top candidates to get that ball, but Smith simply wants the chance to prove he belongs in the battle. On all downs, not just third.
"I look at it very differently," said the former Utah State star who finished his college run with a stellar average of 7.1 yards per carry. "I have confidence in myself and I believe it's a three-way battle. [Others] may not see it that way, but I come out here working. I'm not out here just to sit down and be a third-down back. I'm out here to start and play immediately and to make a big impact on the team. I'm just out here working hard to show the coach what I've got to offer him and the team, the Buccaneers."
Smith knows how to share a backfield and still make that big impact. Last fall, he complemented Aggies starter Robert Turbin, who rushed for 1,538 yards and was drafted in the fourth round by the Seattle Seahawks in April. Utah State did what Greg Schiano's Buccaneers plan to do, centering their offense around a powerful rushing attack, and that gave Smith the chance to add 870 yards and nine touchdowns on 114 carries. He capped his college career with a 157-yard game-MVP performance in the Idaho Bowl and, over a long offseason of draft preparations and practices in shorts, has longed to put the pads back on and build on that momentum.
"I'm very anxious [for the start of camp]," said Smith. "I'm ready to put the helmet on and the shoulder pads and hit somebody. I want to show I'm a physical back, as you can see if you watch my college career. I'm not just a scatback, I'm balanced."
Of course, Smith's own scouting of the running back room around him indicates that he's not alone in that category, so it won't be easy to win carries on any down. As was the case at Utah State, however, if the running game as a whole is a success, there will be more opportunities to go around for everyone.
"I feel like we're all well-balanced, first down to third down, and if we go on fourth down we can all stay in there," said the rookie. "Third down, yes I bring speed to the table, I believe, as far as what everybody looks at. We've got Blount, a big back, a power back, but also he can catch. He's very diverse and very balanced. Doug – a balanced back, a first-to-third-down back. I feel like everybody's a three down back – Mo [Madu]. And I'm not saying I'm just a third-down back."
Again, making the 53-man roster is the first step, but Smith could find help in that quest from his obvious abilities in the return game. He has been clocked with sub-4.3 times in the 40-yard dash, so he could prove to be the breakaway threat a coaching staff is always looking for in the third phase of the game. Bring it on, he says, and make it hot.
"I'm a part of everything," said Smith. "They've thrown me in the fire and I love it. It's not burning me. Kick return, punt return – I'm in everything out there, using my speed. I feel very confident. I'm just bringing my talents to the table – my speed, my power, my brains. My intelligence – I'll bring it to the game, not make mistakes, and if I make mistakes try to limit them. You've got to make every rep count; I try to do that all the time."
Schiano said on Thursday that this year's camp may be unique, in terms of opportunities for the team's newest players. Because Schiano and his staff only arrived in Tampa over the winter and only started installing their playbook about a month before the draft, the Bucs' veterans are not that far ahead of the rookies in the learning curve. Rookies will get a chance every summer in Tampa, but the 2012 class appears to have the most favorable situation possible.
In addition, everyone is at the same starting point heading into camp, because none of the backs have met a single live tackler yet this year. The padded practices of training camp and the preseason games are when jobs will be won and lost. From what he has seen in non-contact practices, though, Schiano already feels good about the competition at running back, and he agrees with Smith's assessment that there are no one-dimensional candidates in the bunch.
"I think they're skill sets kind of mesh nicely," said the coach. "But I think there's some overlap, too. Because when you look at all of them, there's no 'skinny minis' out there. They're all pretty jacked up. But some of them have kind of different skills as far as acceleration. I like the mix. Again, to see them with someone trying to tackle them, that's going to be the [key.] The proof's in the pudding there."
As versatile as he believes all the Buc backs to be, Smith knows that he may have some strengths that Blount and Martin do not, and vice versa. That's what will be uncovered over the next six weeks, and what will determine if Smith really is a third-down back in the NFL, or perhaps even something more.
"Yes, we complement each other," he said. "Some plays we do better than other plays. Just like in life itself, you're not good at everything, but one thing you are good at so the coach will put you in on that play. That's what we've got to do, and once we get an opportunity we've just got to seize the moment."