5-4 back hits heights with Navy Shortest 1-A starter blocks out stature

August 25, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Will Smith never thinks small.

At 5 feet 4, Navy's senior slotback has the distinction of being the shortest starting player in Division I-A college football. But in the minds of Smith and his coaches, that has little (pardon the expression) if anything to do with the way he plays football.

"Because of what he does on the field, I never even considered his size, or lack of it, when I made him a starter last season," said coach Charlie Weatherbie.

"If you just saw him walking around the campus, you'd think he's too small to play. But when he puts on the uniform and you watch him block and run, you wish you had 10 others just like him. In fact, I'd thought of using him to demonstrate proper blocking technique."

Most diminutive football players -- former Baltimore Colts great Buddy Young and current Morgan State coach Stump Mitchell quickly come to mind -- used their speed and elusiveness to compensate for their stature. Surprisingly, it is the 175-pound Smith's ability to block rivals -- some 80 to 100 pounds heavier -- that has endeared him to his coaches.

"Pound-for-pound, Smith is the toughest guy I've ever coached," said running backs coach Ken Niumatalolo. "What makes him an exceptional blocker is his great heart and attitude. He doesn't just block his man, he comes after him with real tenacity and wants to knock him on his butt."

Smith never considered himself below average in any way.

"I was a mean kid, always getting into fights," said the native of Decatur, Ga. "My father died before I was born, and my mother, a nurse, figured playing sports would keep me out of trouble. I grew up watching Herschel Walker run over everybody at Georgia, and I guess I felt I could do the same thing."

When Smith turned 10, he tried out for peewee football.

"I didn't really understand the game or that you were supposed to run plays," he said. "I just thought you took the ball and ran as fast as you could. The coaches didn't like my free-lancing, so they made me become a 4-foot, 80-pound nose guard."

Smith continued to take on man-sized jobs at Lakeside High in Atlanta.

"My first year with the varsity, I weighed about 130, but I played linebacker. But, believe me, I hurt people when I tackled them. I enjoyed the contact better than anything else."

By his junior year, he was switched to the backfield. As a senior tailback, he gained more than 1,000 yards and helped Lakeside reach the state final.

And when he wasn't playing football, he was throwing the shot put for the track and field team.

"Got up to 45 feet," he said proudly.

But despite winning second team all-county honors, he drew interest from neither Georgia nor Georgia Tech.

"I guess I didn't fit their stereotype of the big, powerful back," he said with a soft laugh.

Navy took its chances, and Smith spent a year at Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., before coming to Annapolis in 1993.

He played two games for the junior varsity as a plebe before winning a varsity berth as a sophomore.

By midseason in 1994, he was beginning to get some playing time, and scored a touchdown against Notre Dame on a 13-yard run. "It wasn't a big deal for me," he said. "We wound up losing, 58-21."

The following week, then-coach George Chaump promoted him to a starting role against Tulane, with the Midshipmen winning, ,, 17-15. But Smith failed to play another down in the remaining games against Rice and archrival Army.

"I went from a starter to a permanent fixture on the bench," he said. "The coaches never told me why, and I didn't ask. I just had to believe they thought they had someone better for the job."

But Smith kept his "nose to the grindstone" and convinced Weatherbie last year that he again deserved to start.

Smith is unimpressed with his status as the nation's shortest collegiate starter.

"People may think it's something worth consideration, but I really never think about it," he said.

"And others believe I have an advantage blocking big guys because I have this low center of gravity. But you can only surprise the defenders once or twice. After that, it all comes down to who hits who, and I have a real hunger for hitting people."

This year, Weatherbie also plans to use Smith, who averaged more than 6 yards on 12 carries last season, as a running back.

"Will is not exceptionally fast, but he's got quick feet and can make people miss him," the coach said.

When Smith, an economics major, graduates next spring, he hopes to serve aboard a submarine.

"It's something I've always thought I'd like to do," he said.

But he just might not qualify for submarine duty. His heart could be too big.

Mighty mites

Here is a list of the shortest projected starters in Division I-A college football this season:

Name .. .. .. .. .. ..College .. .. .Ht. .. ..Wt. .. ..Cl. .. .. ..Pos.

Will Smith .. .. .. . ..Navy .. .. .5-4 .. ..175 .. ...Sr. .. .. .. .SB

Stacey Mitchell .. .. .Texas Tech ..5-5 .. ..150 .. ...Jr. .. .. .. .FL

Mike Huff Central .. ..Florida .. ..5-6 .. ..165 .. ...Jr. .. .. .. .TB

Kalief Muhammad .. .. .Baylor .. ...5-6 .. ..180 .. ...Sr. .. .. .. .WR

Patrick Walsh .. .. San Jose State .5-6 .. ..185 . .. .Sr. .. .. .. .HB

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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