Last weekend brought the sad news that running back Michael Smith's Razorback career is finished. After enjoying a breakout year in 2008, Smith never seemed to get on track this season (well, "never" is not the right word - he did have one glorious afternoon against Auburn), and Arkansas fans were left wondering why.
Was it the Hogs' increased reliance on their video-game-like passing attack? No doubt that was part of it. How about the increased depth in the backfield? Surely that played a role as well. But last Saturday's announcement makes it pretty clear that he never truly recovered from the hamstring woes that limited his playing time at the end of last season and kept him out of the season-finale against LSU.
And that's a damn shame. The undersized Smith performed heroic work last year to keep Bobby Petrino's first Arkansas squad afloat, and if there was any justice in sports, he would have spent his senior season as a high-profile member of an exciting and increasingly high-profile team.
But sports - and life - aren't fair, and Michael now finds that his college playing days are over prematurely.
Smith arrived in Fayetteville in 2005, as a member of the same recruiting class as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (has there ever been a class as full of talented backs as that one?). However, a hamstring injury forced him to redshirt that year, and he spent the '06 and '07 seasons toiling somewhat in obscurity as the back-up to McFadden and Jones, who had by then of course established themselves as mega stars.
When Michael was in the spotlight, it was not always for good reasons. His late-first-half fumble against Kentucky in 2007 marked the turning point in the Wildcats' come-from-behind victory. That year also brought a run-in with the law: Smith was arrested and jailed on suspicion of using a stolen credit card. However, prosecutors later dropped felony and theft charges against him after his co-defendant filed an affidavit that officials said cleared Smith.
With Darren and Felix in the NFL and his legal woes behind him, Michael enjoyed a banner 2008 and was, by all accounts, a model citizen both on and off the field. For stretches of last year, he and tight end D.J. Williams seemed to be the Hogs' only reliable sources of offense.
"Outstanding" is an understatement when used to describe his performance in a mid-season, four-game stretch that included match-ups against Florida, Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Against Auburn, he rushed for 176 yards and collected another 46 yards in receiving. One week later, at Kentucky, he ran for 192 yards and hauled in 33 yards through the air.
Unfortunately, the 5'9", 180-pound Smith's hamstring soon buckled under the load that the Razorbacks were asking him to carry, and he wasn't on the field nearly as much as the season drew to an end. When all was said and done, he ended the year with 1,072 rushing yards (making him just the ninth player in Arkansas history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season) and was named second-team all-SEC. This summer, he was named preseason first-team all-SEC by several sources.
How will history remember Smith? He won't be considered one of the Hogs' all-timers. After all, objectively speaking, he really was only great for three-quarters of one season. But his contributions to the Bobby Petrino era are big.
His electrifying mid-season performance stabilized Bobby's first team after those brutal early-season games against Alabama, Texas and Florida. Largely because of him, the team was able to find its sea legs, to avoid getting buried, to generate some momentum down the stretch, which helped set the stage for this year's leap forward. That's not a contribution to be dismissed lightly. Around here at least, Michael Smith's Razorback career won't be forgotten anytime soon.