Little seems to have changed for Ito Smith.
The University of Southern Mississippi senior running back will remain the main cog in the Golden Eagles’ offense as well as the number one target of every opponent’s defensive game.
“Ito understands he has to do his job,” USM coach Jay Hopson said after another three-hour preseason practice on a sticky Friday morning.
“He’s a big part of what we do, and that’s just the reality of Ito. He’s just a great player.”
And yet, much has changed, personnel-wise, on the Golden Eagles’ offense from a season ago.
Gone is four-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens, who rewrote the USM record book for passing production. Gone are three starters on the offensive line, where only redshirt senior guard Devin Farrior returns with more than one year of full-time starting experience under his belt.
The spring’s quarterback duel between redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs and sophomore Keon Howard continues this summer. Griggs has yet to appear in a USM game, while Howard was inconsistent and turnover prone after he was thrown into the fray in 2016 when Mullens went down for three games in the second half of the season.
But Smith offers an enigmatic smile when asked about whether he will bear even more of the spotlight’s heat this fall.
“I love doing this, I don’t feel any pressure,” Smith said. “The line? They’re shaping up. They’re looking good out there
“The quarterbacks are going to be fine, whether it’s Kwadra or Keon,” Smith said. “They’re both great quarterbacks. They’ve been throwing dimes, putting it on the money, so we’re going to be just fine. We’ve got a lot of great receivers There’s a lot of competition out there.”
Hopson said USM will continue to roll out an offense that produced 26 touchdowns on the ground and 26 touchdowns through the air in 2016.
“We’re going to run our offense,” Hopson said. “You can’t be so predictable that you give Ito the ball every time.”
Maybe not every time, but the 5-foot 9, 193-pound Smith wound up with the football in his hands more, by far, than any other player on USM’s team not named Mullens, and when it was, good things tended to happen.
Smith accounted for 56.6 percent of the team’s carries (265 of 544), 64.3 percent of its rushing yards (1,459 of 2,269) and 65.4 percent of its rushing touchdowns (17 of 26).
The ball went to Smith 37.2 percent of the time on plays from scrimmage (308 rushing/receiving touches to 829 total snaps minus incompletions). He accounted for 31.2 percent of the team’s yards from scrimmage (1,918 yards to 6,146 total team yards) and 36.5 percent of the team’s touchdowns (19 of 52).
That means Smith carried the ball more than half the time USM ran the ball and he accumulated nearly one third of the team’s total yards from scrimmage.
“I know that he’s not only a good player, but a great player,” Hopson said. “So, the reality is, we’re going to do what we do, but the reality is he’s difference-making football player.
“I’ve said it before, I think he’s an NFL football player. He’s a guy who has great vision, a great burst, acceleration.”
It was one of the most productive performances in Southern Miss history, with Smith rushing for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns on 265 carries, and adding another 459 yards and two more scores on 43 catches.
He broke off an 86-yard against Savannah State, turned a pass into a 54-yard gain against Rice. In USM’s 28-21 victory over the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the R&L Carriers New Orleans, he scored three of the Golden Eagles’ four touchdowns, two rushing, one receiving.
And Smith said he’s ready to roll again, as are the Golden Eagles.
“The younger guys, they look up to the older guys,” Smith said. “I just continue to keep working hard, and the young guys, they follow. They’re going to work hard and want to get better, too. I don’t really say too much, just try and lead by example.”