HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Shannon Dawson has coached his share of dangerously-explosive and productive offensive football players in myriad, high-flying offenses over the years.
But the first-year University of Southern Mississippi offensive coordinator said he has coached no one better than Golden Eagles junior running back Ito Smith.
"I'd put him up there with any player I've ever had," Dawson said. "He's just so dependable, and to me, dependability is maybe even more important than ability. But, when you have both (dependability and ability), obviously, that's what makes him so special."
Smith will try to add to his legacy Saturday, when the Golden Eagles (6-6) take on the University of Louisiana-Lafayette at 8 p.m. in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
USM's leading rusher in 2014 (536 yards) and 2015 (1,128 yards), Smith's 1,321 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns has put him into the company of the best ballcarriers in Golden Eagles' history.
- Smith recorded the fourth-best, season rushing in USM annals, and he needs 68 yards against UL-Lafayette Saturday to move up to third past Damion Fletcher’s 1,388 yards in 2006.
- Smith’s rushing touchdowns stand as the third-most in a single season, and one more would tie Harold Shaw’s 16-touchdown effort in 1997
- Smith became just the fourth Golden Eagle to post multiple, 1,000-yard rushing seasons, joining Fletcher (2006-09), Derrick Nix (1998-99, 2002) and Ben Garry (1976-77), and just the eighth to lead the team in rushing in at least three seasons, joining Fletcher (2006-09), Nix (1998-99, 2002), Vincent Alexander (1984-86), Sammy Winder (1979-1981), Garry (1975-77), Doyle Orange (1971-73) and Bubba Phillips (1947-50)
- Smith’s seven, 100-yard rushing games tied for 15th nationally among Football Bowl Subdivision players, while his rushing yards (20th) and rushing touchdowns (tied for 15th) ranked among the top 20
- Smith also owns two of USM’s top five all-purpose yardage seasons (1,876 in 2015; 1,774 in 2016). With 42 catches for 453v yards, he ranked 15th this fall nationally in all-purpose yards.
"Ito is just a great athlete," USM coach Jay Hopson said after watching the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder rip off an 86-yard against Savannah State in September. "He has great vision, is a competitor. He is not only quick, but is a powerful. He may not be the biggest guy in the world, but his power is tremendous and he plays hard every snap."
That combination of quickness and power allows Smith to pound between the tackles as well as bounce a play to the edge.
"Coaches just put me in great positions, and it all goes back to that, just finding ways to get me the ball, whether it's a pass or a run," Smith said.
The athleticism also has allowed him to avoid a ton of big hits.
"When Coach (John) Simon was here last year, he'd always tell us to take care of ourselves out there," Smith said. "So, whenever I can, when a play's over, I just fall down or run out of bounds, so I don't take that many hits, trying to take care of myself."
Avoiding punishment when possible is what Dawson calls Smith's "cerebral" approach to the game.
"The thing about Ito is that he thinks his way through a game, too," Dawson said. "Very, very cerebral player. Asks a lot of questions a lot of players don't ask.His attitude and the way he comes to work every day is impressive."
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