After tearing a knee ligament at the end of 2011 and spending 2012 on a winding road back, the senior wide receiver and kick returner is back leading and gaining a more prominent role in the offense.
By Monica Lee
SEATTLE -- The sold-out crowd roared. The Huskies were emerging from their tunnel in the northwest corner of new Husky Stadium in game uniforms for the first time. At the mouth of the tunnel, UW’s wide receivers created a mob of excitement and chaos as anticipation hung over Montlake.
The mob’s leader: Kevin Smith.
The receivers were a blur of purple and gold. They wildly barked, slapped each other’s helmets and jumped in a circle they formed around their popular, spiritual leader.
Smith led the front line of players to hit the turf for pregame warm-ups Saturday night about an hour before the stadium’s unveiling game kicked off against Boise State. He yelled and clapped repeatedly to rile up his teammates, the Dawg Pack students’ section a few feet away and the 71,963 fans coming in early to the new stadium.
Smith, fully recovered from a major knee injury 20 months ago, is back to seize his senior season as an integral part of the offense -- and of the Huskies’ psyche.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound wide receiver and kick returner, a native of Compton, Calif., is among the most popular Huskies because of his infectious, positive energy and humor. Yet he has his own challenge to conquer: Proving that he can return to playing the way he did before injuring his knee in San Antonio during practice for the 2011 Alamo Bowl.
He returned last season, but saw significantly less playing time with six catches and five punt returns in 12 games.
After a tremendous display last month in preseason practice, Smith had four catches for 69 yards in last weekend’s season-opening, 38-6 win over No. 19 Boise State.
The performance suggested Smith is on his way to being his game-breaking self again.
“Kevin Smith (had) a great training camp,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He’s been really dynamic. He’s playing fast. He’s kind of back to his old self.”
This is no accident.
“I had a lot of confidence coming into camp,” Smith said last week “And I know that I’m capable of being back to who I was when I first got here. It’s been great.”
Smith arrived to UW in 2010 as a highly-touted recruit out of Centennial High School just south of Los Angeles’ city center. As a true freshman, he earned a spot in the regular receiving rotation as well as a kick returner. He started at wide receiver in two games – against UCLA and California – making him one of eight true freshmen to start at least one game that season.
In 2011, Smith played as a receiver in all 12 games until his injury in practice days before the Alamo Bowl against Baylor, and he emerged that season as one of the Huskies’ primary kick returners. As a sophomore, he set a new UW record for most kickoff return yards in a game with 176 against USC.
Forgotten following reconstructive knee surgery and along his road back last year, Smith ranks in the top 10 in a dozen categories for kick returns in UW history. In addition to holding the record for most kickoff return yards in a game, he is ranked second for four other kick-return records.
Although the receiver’s junior season was a setback, the senior is showing signs of a 2013 rebound.
“[Smith is] probably the biggest surprise for me,” Sarkisian said before the opener. “You try not to lay expectations on people, but you have the pieces to the puzzle laid out on the table and you start putting them together, I don’t know if we really thought going in number eight would be such an integral part of the puzzle.
“But right now he is.”
Last Saturday, Smith proved it.
He started as the third wide receiver along with Kasen Williams and Jaydon Mickens. Quarterback Keith Price found him on UW’s second drive for a first down on third and 8. On the next play Price hit Smith for 12 more yards to midfield, sparking the drive that ended with the first of Bishop Sankey’s two rushing touchdowns.
On Washington’s next possession, Price found Smith for a 42-yard circus catch. That drive ended with Dwayne Washington getting stopped short on fourth and 1 deep in Boise State territory.
But it only bolstered Price’s renewed faith in Smith.
“He’s a smart player, a fast player, and does everything right,” Price said of his close friend and fellow Compton native. “He’s somebody that you want in your huddle because when it’s time to lock in, he locks in.
“But he’s a clown.”
Offensively, Smith has established that he is a big threat on multiple fronts, but his hilarious antics off the field create the biggest impact.
“I try to keep the team happy in a positive way, positive thoughts. It’s mostly my deal to keep everybody happy and smiling,” the resident comedian said with a chuckle.
“I make funny noises, mess around with (my teammates), and do different tricks around them. It’s just going with the flow most of the time.”
Price and the rest of the Dawgs can’t help but smile around Smith.
“He’s like a ball of energy. He’s fun to be around and his energy is contagious. He gets me fired up just throwing him the ball,” Price said. “He’s just always having a good time.”
Sarkisian has also mentioned how Smith’s constant energy is an inspiration on and off the field.
“Kevin loves being out there, he doesn’t take anything for granted,” Sarkisian said last week.
“Kevin is the epitome of embracing the day.”
The Huskies are on an early bye week, not playing again until they travel to Chicago to take on Illinois at Soldier Field Sept. 14.
In a couple weeks, the Huskies will see if Smith continues to play like himself away from home, too.
“Wherever [the coaches] put me I’ll go out and play and be where they want me to be to help the team and get the W every time we go out,” Smith said.
“I just want to go out and win it for the team.”