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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Nearly slighted, Smith looms large
At 5-10, 165, Gators corner produces big plays in secondary, but the Utah transfer almost never got a second look.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 11, 2006
GAINESVILLE - The first time Urban Meyer met Ryan Smith, he was less than impressed by what he saw in the future college cornerback.
Meyer had just been hired as the coach at Utah and was fresh out on the Mountain West recruiting trail. His then-assistant coach Kyle Wittingham accompanied him.
"So we're driving and we pull in this home, and I come knocking on the door and here comes Ryan Smith," Meyer said. "He answers the door and he is maybe 150 pounds. I look at Kyle Wittingham, and I'm ready to take a swing at him. We go sit down, start talking, great family, mom, dad, very nice home, very professional people. We leave there, we go to the next guy's house and his name is Eric Weddle. Eric Weddle looks worse than Ryan Smith."
The moral of the story: Looks can be deceiving.
Weddle was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year last season and currently is second in Division I-A in interceptions (six). Smith transferred to Florida in August and, along with Reggie Nelson, has formed a formidable cornerback duo for the Gators. He and Nelson are also among the Division I-A interception leaders with four each.
At 5 feet 10 and listed as 165 pounds on the Gators roster, Smith knows he's considered an overachiever. It's a label he's used to.
"I've always liked the challenge," said Smith, 21. "I've always been an undersized corner, but I make up for it with my technique and the way I play."
Smith was a freshman All-American at Utah under Meyer, but he fell out of favor after Meyer left for Florida two years ago. By the end of last season, he was looking for a way out. He wanted to join Meyer and his former cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater at Florida. He contacted them when the Utes' season ended.
"I was talking to the coaches in the offseason; I was going to sit out if I had to come to Florida, but I wasn't going to sit out for any other school," Smith said. "Then we found out that I couldn't come because there was a rule that said transfers had to have two years left to play."
So Smith starting pondering other options, mostly Division I-AA schools. As they were researching, Smith's father, Lance, stumbled upon a new NCAA rule that allows athletes who graduate with eligibility remaining to transfer to another Division I-A school without having to sit out one year. Smith was on pace to graduate from Utah.
"As soon as my dad found out about the rule, I knew I was coming here," he said. "I really wanted to come to Florida because of Coach Meyer. That's the main reason."
Word spread quickly about the possibility of Smith joining the team. With a lack of depth at the position, the Florida players were excited.
"I thought he was going to be a great player," defensive end Ray McDonald said. "If Coach Meyer brought him in, Coach Meyer is a great coach, so he knows talent. So when he brought Ryan Smith in, I was confident he was going to play for us and be a baller."
Actually, Meyer wasn't so sure. Now in his second season at Florida, he continues to be amazed at the size and speed of the defensive players in the SEC. As he had done at Utah, he wondered if Smith could cut it.
"I was curious to see if he could hang in down here," Meyer said. "He's so smart, and Chuck Heater has done such a good job."
Smith, too, wondered. He has quickly learned there's a significant difference between competition in the Mountain West and the SEC.
"Every week, week in and week out, I'm going against somebody bigger than I am, faster, maybe stronger," he said. "I just use my technique and speed that I do have."
Although he has four interceptions this season, he has dropped three more - two that left him wide open enough to score touchdowns "if I would have caught every one of them." With so many opportunities, it begs the question: Are SEC opponents going at him because they don't respect him?
"I think that may be a part of it," Smith said. "But I really didn't get a lot of balls early in the season. Recently, the last two games I've got a lot of balls, and I made a lot of plays, which is good."
The Gators are tied for third in Division I-A with 11 interceptions. Meyer said Nelson, Smith and a change in philosophy - playing more zone defense - are all factors.
"You can intercept the ball much easier when you're in zone because you're facing the quarterback," he said.
Whatever the reason, Smith is having an impact. And the time of his life. He knew the Gators were in need of cornerbacks when he arrived, but starting for the No. 2 team in the nation, which has begun the season 6-0, is even better than he could have imagined.
"This is like a dream come true," Smith said. "It really is a dream come true, I can't put it into words any other way."