As Amazing Play Last Week Proved, Smith is Back
Nov. 20, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Days later, it remains the most remarkable play of the Huskies' season - if not the decade.
And you will never find it in the game's box score.
Washington was scuffling through a 7-0 lead over Colorado early in the third quarter last weekend when Kevin Smith, perhaps the most popular and energetic Dawg who has battled back from an anterior cruciate ligament tear, raced downfield as an outside gunner on the punt-coverage team. Smith saw teammate Travis Coons' punt bounce then deflect off a Buffaloes' blocker and veer toward the Colorado sideline. Smith seemed to be the only player on the field to know it was a live ball. He sprinted to it, toed the sideline then flipped the ball back into the field of play behind him -- while sprawling head first through the Buffs' bench into the Folsom Field crowd.
With Smith in Row 2, Will Shamburger recovered the basketball-like saved fumble at the CU 35. Smith celebrated by hootin' and hollerin' among stunned fans dressed in black and gold. Three plays later, Keith Price threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Kasen Williams. Just over 2½ minutes later, the Huskies scored another TD, and what had been a struggle before Smith's turning-point heroics became UW's 38-3 win for their fourth consecutive victory.
"The play by Kevin Smith was better on video than I thought it was in person," coach Steve Sarkisian said this week while preparing the Huskies (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) for Friday afternoon's 105th Apple Cup at Washington State (2-9, 0-8). "I didn't realize he flipped into the stands, landed, and then celebrated in the stands when he found out we got the ball."
Teammate Justin Glenn was running near Smith covering that punt. He stopped, thinking like the other 20 players on the field that the ball was out of bounds and the play was over.
"That," Glenn said after the Colorado game, "was ridiculous."
Smith shrugged and thought it wasn't that big a deal. After all, he was MVP of his Southern California Pioneer League in basketball while a junior at Centennial High School in Compton, Calif.
His astounding play was something more common by a hoopster running through the baseline to keep a basketball from going out of bounds.
"Yeah, I know, it was like a basketball play. That's what I've got in me," Smith said.
He's also got perseverance.
Smith was primed for a key role as an extra wide receiver and kickoff returner in last December's Alamo Bowl - until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee the week of the game. He did not practice in any of spring ball or fall camp in August.
But no one can say he didn't participate.
He was running fluidly almost the length of the East practice field throughout the preseason. But not to catch passes. Not yet. He was sprinting 70-plus yards to celebrate big catches by Williams, Cody Bruns and other teammates. His fun runs invariably ended with flying chest bumps and cackling that bounced off the construction vehicles renovating Husky Stadium a few yards away.
"Yeah, always very passionate about it," Smith said. "I have a lot of energy to pick up everybody. I like to make people laugh and have a good day.
"I don't like when people are down. It's a good day," he said with a smile. "And I pray every day is a good day."
The days are far better this fall for Smith compared to how his 2011 ended. Eight months and two weeks after he tore his ACL, Smith ran past an LSU defender down the sidelines at caught a 22-yard pass from Keith Price in early September. That was part of his career-high four catches that night.
He returned a punt in October against USC, then a kickoff two weeks ago against Utah.
Smith's 80 yards on kickoff returns this season have moved him past injured Jesse Callier for second place on UW's career list. At 1,362 yards in three seasons, Smith is 170 kick-return yards behind Huskies all-time record holder Steve Bramwell (1963-65) entering the Apple Cup.
Yes, as if the miraculous play at Colorado left any doubt, Smith is indeed back from all his lonely days of knee rehabilitation and counting range of motion in painful, incremental degrees this winter and spring.
Then again, as Smith says, "I feel like I was back way before (this season began). I feel great about it.
"I feel good. I feel confident. I'm ready to go." His teammates and coaches have been eagerly waiting for that. Beyond his production and experience, Smith's constant banter, energy and laughs make him one of the most popular and involved Huskies. He was barely recognizable earlier this season when he got rid of the gold stripe he had bleached into the center of his hair for months.
"Kevin has made a tremendous return. I am so happy for him and fired up for him," Sarkisian said. "He's had an unbelievable attitude about this and how he's attacked his injury and the rehab.
"So much of when you have a knee injury is mental as much as physical. ... Kevin is such a great spirit. He has so much energy. He loves being out here playing and practicing."
On most days, that is. He didn't love his last Christmas Eve. He went down on a wet field at Alamo Heights High School north of downtown San Antonio, where UW practiced for the Alamo Bowl.
"The first day we were down there, I caught a ball coming across the field. My foot got stuck in the ground," he said. "It was raining a little bit. It was on turf. Got stuck in the ground, tried to make a cut. It buckled, basically.
"I walked off. Ice wrapped it up. We couldn't figure it out until back Seattle and had an MRI."
It showed the ACL tear. After the swelling subsided, Smith had reconstructive surgery the second week of January. By the end of the month, he was off crutches. He watched spring practice in April, but by mid-August he was sprinting downfield in practice-play celebrations that looked as fast and free as one of his kickoff returns.
"I mean, when people make plays you've got to give it to them, no matter who it is. No matter if it's the quarterback, the O lineman - even if it's a defensive player," Smith said, knowing he doesn't need to apologize for spicing up Huskies practices and games.
"I like to give props."
The Huskies have been giving him theirs, especially since his amazing play at Colorado.
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Sophomore DT Danny Shelton has made the Pac-12's all-academic first team. He has a 3.47 grade-point average and recently declared his major as anthropology. Kim Durand, UW's associate athletic director for student development, said earlier this fall she believes Shelton has the potential to become the Huskies' first academic All-American since Ed Cunningham in 1991. This is how Shelton has bulled through a thing or three to get to where he is today, a standout in the classroom and on Washington's defensive line ... Sarkisian had the team in shoulder pads and helmets prior to the rain arriving Tuesday morning. The forecast for Pullman at game time Friday: a 30-percent chance of rain with temperatures in the low 40s and winds up to 11 mph.