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Nov. 16, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, NC – In the age of specialization in college football, coaches find different ways to fill their needs from running backs.
There’s one whose primary purpose is to carry the ball, another who plays on third downs and is good at catching passes and yet one more who returns kicks.
Or, in the case of Georgia Tech, there’s one player who performs all those tasks and adds blocking as well – Orwin Smith. He plays the “A-back” position in the Yellow Jackets’ option offense.
“It’s a position where you have to do everything – catching, running, blocking,” Smith said. “You can’t really be a one-dimensional back at that position. It’s really hard to get on the field if you can only do one thing. You have to be very versatile and a lot of guys aren’t.
“I can count on one hand the number of plays where you don’t do much, where you can not do anything and be OK. In this offense, it’s demanding on every play.”
It’s an unusual position because the player doesn’t get that many touches during a game. Smith, a senior, has never carried the ball more than a dozen times during his career.
But the nature of the spot lends itself to big plays. Smith usually gets the ball on sweeps and pitchouts or on pass routes that give him a chance to do something in space. The results are an eye-popping 9.6 yards on 184 carries for his career and an 18.3 average on 42 pass receptions.
When coach Paul Johnson recruits, he has an idea whether a runner would be better suited for the power-running “B-back” or the outside-oriented “A-back.” Some runners can play both but Smith was better-suited to run outside.
“Not only (has he got) good speed and (is a) good runner, he's a good receiver and can catch the ball,” Johnson said. “He's got some toughness. I think he would be a good player no matter what position he plays. He's just a good football player.”
Smith’s high school team in Phenix City, AL, ran a spread offense. That helped his receiving skills but didn’t develop his blocking because he was waiting for defenders to come to him. When he got to Georgia Tech, he had to learn to be the aggressor and understand how his blocks on the perimeter could extend plays. His time on the field as a freshman was almost exclusively limited to returning kicks.
“In this offense, if you wait for the guy to come to you, you won’t be playing,” Smith said of blocking. “You have to attack them. It really tests your athleticism because you’re going to him and basically he’s waiting on you.
“I struggled a lot my freshman year, which held me back from playing. That was my main goal my sophomore year, to get that blocking down because I wanted to get on the field and play. It was a lot of work but I eventually got it. You start to appreciate it and want to do it more.”
Johnson said he wouldn’t call Smith the best blocker on the team, “but he's very adequate and he's improved in that area a lot.”
It’s during the few times in a game when Smith carries the ball that people in the stands – not to mention defenders – need to watch closely. This year is typical for him. He ranks fifth on the team with 65 carries but first with 606 yards, a 9.3 average.
As a junior he averaged 10.1 yards on 61 carries and as a sophomore it was 9.7 yards on 53 carries. Clearly, he’s capable of making big plays any time he touches the ball. His longest run was 95 yards against Kansas last season and he has three others of 73 or more yards. All went for touchdowns.
Smith was a track sprinter in high school. He said he didn’t have “blazing speed” but benefited from a fast start and long legs.
A turf toe injury on his right foot slowed him down a bit in high school and he played through it for three seasons with the Jackets. It’s an injury to a ligament in the big toe and finally required surgery after last season.
“I was basically playing with a loose big toe and it was like a pulled hamstring,” Smith said. “Whenever I bent the big toe back I was pulling on the ligament that was already almost ripped. It hurt, but when it hurt the most was when it got cold.
“But it’s doing great after the surgery. I knew during the heat it would be OK but I had some thoughts in the back of my head because I knew it would eventually get cold. We went up to Maryland a couple weeks ago and that’s when I knew that the surgery did pay off.”
Smith scored a touchdown on a 22-yard run during Tech’s record-setting 68-50 win over UNC last week, the most combined points ever scored in an ACC game. Tech’s offense usually causes opposing coaches headaches anyway, but that one really got the attention of Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
“Well, you just don't sleep after you watch that,” said Cutcliffe, who is preparing his defense for its meeting with the Jackets this week. “You go to the store and try to talk to the pharmacist out of some Ambien is about all you can do.
“It's pretty nightmarish. I think the thing that you have to do is just be consistent and like any time if you're playing a good offense, if you don't tackle well and you don't play good technique, you have no chance.”
Stopping the quarterback and the B-back are the first concerns when facing the Jackets, but Cutcliffe is well aware of what Smith can do outside.
“He's an exceptionally fast young man,” the coach said. “He's tough, he's experienced. He's been a good football player down there for a long time.
“They do a good job of getting the ball to the perimeter in a lot of different ways. They can certainly toss it to him in the sweep and he can get the pitch on certain option plays, and of course they throw the ball to those guys. He's a big threat, just like many of their guys are in a lot of different ways.”
Smith said it hit him earlier in the week that this Saturday will be the final home game of his career. There are some individual records at stake for him, the biggest being the NCAA’s all-time leader in yards per carry for a career (9.6).
He’s aware of the record, although he said he doesn’t check his stats. To him, it would be an indication that the hard work he has put in has paid off.
The more pressing concern is winning Saturday to make Tech bowl eligible. A win would also put the Jackets at 5-3 in the Coastal Division and, temporarily, in first place. Tech can clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game Dec. 1 in Charlotte, but needs to beat Duke and then have the Blue Devils beat Miami, which owns the tiebreaker by virtue of a win over Tech.
Tech won the ACC title in Smith’s freshman season but his contributions came on special teams. Another trip to the championship game would mean more because he has been a more integral part of the offense.
“We need to continue to stay focused and stay hungry,” Smith said. “We can’t take our foot off the gas. We’re in no place to do that because we’ve only won five games. I think the main thing is just to stay after it, stay energetic, stay pushing one another and stay positive.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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