Ryan Smith: Right Time, Right Place

A year ago, he was the odd man out at Utah, a disgruntled corner caught in a personality conflict with a brand new position coach that obviously didn’t see things on an eye to eye basis. A year later, Ryan Smith has a brand new attitude to go with a new address and he’s hailed as one of college football’s best players, named second team All-America by the Associated Press.

Smith has gone from a cornerback battling a personality conflict with his position coach at Utah to the ultimate team player at Florida. The change of scenery has proven the perfect antidote for whatever ailed him at Utah. A combination of injuries and demotions kept sliding him further down the Utah bench last year but at Florida, he started from day one, led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions with eight and blocked a punt as a key member of the Gators’ special teams.

How he got to Florida has been well-documented. A new NCAA rule that allows a player that graduates with eligibility still remaining turned Smith into college football’s equivalent of a free agent. It is a rule that Urban Meyer says he doesn’t like but the pragmatist in him knows that he wouldn’t have the Gators playing in the college football championship game against Ohio State on January 8 without the divine intervention of the NCAA.

Smith graduated from Utah in three years with a degree in sociology back in July and that allowed him to transfer to Florida where he already had a great relationship with Meyer and with cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, his position coach in 2004 during Utah’s 12-0 dream season. Smith made freshman All-America that season, a startling contrast to a sophomore year that saw his playing time decrease significantly after he was injured.

“I got injured halfway through the season, and once I got injured I kind of lost my job,” said Smith at Florida’s media day on Monday. “I wasn’t playing too well before that, but I just felt people that weren’t as good as me were playing.”

A rift developed between Smith and the coach and it was never resolved. By spring Smith knew he would have a new football address in 2006. “I didn’t see myself playing there [Utah] in the future,” said Smith. “It was a conflict with my position coach. I don’t think he liked the person I was, and I didn’t like the person he was. It was just personality conflicts.”

There were no such issues when Meyer and Heater were at Utah and there have been no issues since Smith arrived. Back when the new rule was announced, Smith’s father, an internal affairs officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, did the research and made the calls to Florida. Timing is everything. It just so happened the Gators were going through a crisis of their own and there was a significant need for a new cornerback.

Avery Atkins, who looked like a future star during his freshman season of 2005, found himself embroiled in a domestic battery accusation with the girl that is mother of his child in his home town of Daytona Beach. That situation led to his dismissal from the team, opening a gaping hole at a position that was already critically short of able-bodied and experienced players.

Smith became the right guy in the right place at the right time. He stepped in at Florida and played like he’d been here for three years. Within a day or two during Florida’s two-a-days in August, it was evident that Smith was going to be the answer at the corner position opposite Reggie Lewis.

“I never struggled in camp at all,” he said. “I kind of stepped in and played good ever since I got here.”

Thirteen games and eight interceptions later, he’s an All-America and a mainstay on Florida’s tenth-ranked defense that will have the daunting task of slowing down Ohio State and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith in the national championship game. At Florida, Ryan Smith has been a playmaker that has saved his best for the games when the Gators needed him the most as evidenced by big games against Alabama, LSU, Florida State and Arkansas.

Throughout the season, his relationship with Meyer and Heater has grown stronger. Meyer says that Smith often sends a text message after big games just saying thanks for letting him be a part of this dream season that has the Gators playing for the second national championship in school history.

Smith redshirted during Meyer’s first year at Utah. The Utes put together an unexpected 9-3 season that only set the stage for the second year magic that became Utah’s 12-0 Fiesta Bowl championship season. It was that great second year at Utah that helped propel Meyer to Florida.

Florida went 9-3 in Meyer’s first year at the helm and the Gators have followed that up with a 12-1 season that ties for the best mark in school history. Smith says he’s not the least bit surprised that Meyer has worked his second year magic at Florida the way he did it at Utah.

“The first year, there are little struggles here and there,” said Smith. “He has to get the program turned around a little bit. The second year, you see the success. He’s kind of rid the program of players who don’t believe in his ways. That’s why we’re so successful and headed to the national championship.”

Asked to describe Meyer in one word, Smith responds “Beast!” It is not intended as a derogatory statement but rather it is revealing insight to what makes Meyer tick. “He’s unlike any other person when it comes to his job and getting players better,” said Smith. “He’s not like the average coach. He’s so intense, and not in a bad way at all. Every little thing matters. It’s amazing how persistent and intense and how good of a coach he is.”

At the core of Meyer the coach is an emphasis on personal relationships with his players. He has created a family atmosphere within the program and there is a bond between position coaches and their players just as there is a bond between the head coach and everybody under him.

“He’s truthful with his players, first of all,” said Smith. “He’s straightforward with them. He lets them know what his deal is, what the program’s about. He’s a straight shooter. That makes kids trust him and want to be a part of what’s going on. They see the success, also. That obviously helps.”

It is almost a month before the Gators face Ohio State. Smith has played on edge all season and the last thing he wants during this layoff is to lose that advantage he’s had all season. He knows he is going to need it going against Ohio State’s crack receiving corps.

“He [Meyer] doesn’t want me to lose my edge,” said Smith. “I have a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been through some stuff. He just wants me to never lose that edge. If I do a dance or fight after a play, he doesn’t want me to do stuff like that.”

And will the Gators need an edge to beat Ohio State?

“Do we need an edge?” Smith asked rhetorically. “We have an edge. I won’t tell you what it is, but we have one.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.