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In Smith’s case, size doesn’t matter

Smallish defensive back gets job done with speed and grit

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Utah defensive back Ryan Smith plays with a chip on his shoulder.

Utah defensive back Ryan Smith plays with a chip on his shoulder.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

When Kyle Whittingham visited Ryan Smith on a recruiting trip to his home in Diamond Bar, Calif., two years ago, he knew right away he wanted the 18-year old to be part of Utah's defense.

"He had speed, quickness and toughness," said Whittingham, who was the Utes' defensive coordinator at the time. "He had it all except for size."

Smith told Whittingham his weight, but when the coach put him on a scale he discovered a different number.

"He was 10 pounds off what he said," Whittingham said with a laugh.

But it didn't matter to Whittingham, who got a commitment from Smith before a few Pac-10 teams could make offers. In fact, one thing Smith has proved in his short time at Utah is that size doesn't matter.

"Size has nothing to do with it," Smith says. "I've been small all my life. This is what God gave me and I'm here to work with it. Size has never really mattered to me."

Smith quickly became a mainstay for the Ute defense a year ago as a true freshman, starting at cornerback for the 12-0 Fiesta Bowl team at approximately 155 pounds. That was up from the 145 he played in high school.

This year Smith will be playing at 165 pounds, up 10 from a year ago, but he's still the third-smallest player on the Utes' 110-player roster.

"It was a little heavy at first, but I'm learning how to run with it," Smith said of his increased weight.

Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen praises Smith for his "unbelievable feet" and "very good speed." Smith is the second fastest on the team with a 4.42 40 time and the quickest player over 10 yards (1.58 seconds). But Andersen believes Smith's lack of size is what drives him.

"The biggest thing is he's got that chip on his shoulder that people think he is too small," Andersen said. "He carries that 160 pounds, and he's going to come and get you and prove to you that he can play like he's 190. He's a hitter, a physical kid who's very competitive. He came to prove everybody wrong and he's doing that."

Smith disagrees about the chip on the shoulder bit.

"I wouldn't say I have a chip on my shoulder. But a lot of people have doubted me and that does drive me. It drives me to prove them wrong."

"He's tough, has great courage. He won't back down from anyone," says Whittingham. "In our scheme, you've got to be able to play man coverage first. With his speed and quickness, he's a great cover guy."

Cornerback coach Jay Hill talks about Smith being "very athletic" and refers to his "amazing knack to get his foot on the ground and to burst toward the ball." But he also appreciates Smith as a person.

"The first thing about Ryan is he comes from a great family," he said. "He gets good grades and has proper values, and you don't ever have to worry about him off the field. He's a good kid."

Last year Smith earned a starting spot during fall drills and made an immediate impact for the defense. In just his fourth game, he earned Mountain West Conference player of the week honors after making 10 tackles and intercepting a pass against Air Force.

He finished the season as the seventh leading tackler on the team with 44 and led the team with seven pass breakups, a fumble recovery, two sacks and an interception.

Hill is hoping Smith can increase his interception total this season.

"The thing he needs to improve on now is his playmaking ability," he said. "When a quarterback makes a mistake, he needs to make the quarterback pay for it."

At 5-foot-10, Smith is as tall as other college cornerbacks, and his weight is not a concern for Whittingham, just like it wasn't when he recruited Smith.

"He's just a sophomore," Whittingham said. "By the time he's done here, he'll be 175 and that's plenty."

Even if he doesn't gain another pound, it won't bother Smith, who has already proved he can play with his small size.

"In my mind, I'm 6-4, 200 pounds, so I'm fine," he said.

E-mail: sor@desnews.com