The elite traits of Southern Miss RB Ito Smith could make him steal of 2018 NFL Draft
The versatile Smith might have the most impressive jump cut in a loaded running back draft class
It's easy to get lost in the 2018 running back draft class with headliners like Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, and Bryce Love. But don't for one second think those three are the only ball-carriers capable set to enter the NFL who're capable of being highly productive.
And he's not a one-trick pony either. He's a super-shifty back with arguably the most sudden jump cut ability in the entire class. Beyond possessing that prerequisite to make defenders miss at the professional level, Smith has game-breaking long speed.
Let's examine the entire on-field skill set of this dark horse running back prospect.
Smith tied with Derrius Guice for Pro Football Focus' 17th-best run grade in the country this season out of 224 qualifying running backs. Overall, (counting receiving and blocking), Smith's grade was 25th, sandwiched between San Diego State's Rashaad Penny at 24 and Alabama's Damien Harris at 26.
In 2016, his run grade was the 52nd-best among 255 qualifying running backs, and his grade was tied with Donnel Pumphrey. In 2015, his run grade was 37th in the nation, and it was tied with ... Joe Mixon. His overall grade that year was the 12th-highest in FBS, just a tick lower than ... Alvin Kamara.
Clearly, Smith has a lengthy track record of effectiveness at the collegiate level, a major plus.
Vision and Elusiveness on Inside Runs
Most running backs have to established themselves as reliable between-the-tackles runners in the NFL. And for some "air" backs, the ability to create space through traffic is difficult.
Because Smith isn't a lower-the-shoulder power runner, he needs to be masterful in close quarters.
And he is.
Against Kentucky in 2016, Smith showcased elite vision and cutting capability on a first down pickup inside the 10.
On paper, that's a simple five- or-six-yard gain. But it probably should've been a stop near the line of scrimmage. Smith was patient behind the pulling lineman, made a linebacker look silly in the hole and finished the run with power as he went to the ground.
Here, on a draw play in Southern Miss's bowl game a season ago, Smith read the oncoming second-level defenders to cut to his left before a devastating juke in the open field to get into the end zone.
That impressive run was as much about his ability to "see ahead" in his run lane as it was about his springy athletic talents. If you watch the run again, you'll notice the blocked linebacker's valiant effort to at least slow down Smith inside the 10-yard line.
He got a hand on the runner, which slowed his momentum, but a split second after contact, Smith had the awareness and agility to execute an enormous jump cut which allowed him to walk in for the score.
Balance, Burst, and Speed
On this run in this season's bowl game against a fast Florida State defense, Smith illustrated his burst as he bounced to the outside then hit the jets to pick up big yardage down the field.
The two pullers were slightly slow to their assignments and didn't pave a huge lane. Smith saw an opening around the outside of the tackle box and was able to accelerate through the second level.
From the pistol against Troy in 2016, as a linebacker penetrated the backfield, Smith demonstrated his vintage juke at the line, cut off a block, then shifted into fifth gear down the sideline for a long touchdown.
Most running backs lose juice after one jump cut, and if they're forced to perform two or more on the same run, their legs slow. While a run making a few defenders miss would almost always been categorized as a positive carry, Smith's ability to hit the homerun without a runway off the line of scrimmage is luxury.
Speaking of what would be labeled as an "easier" run, but one that also shows Smith's long speed, against UTSA in 2017, he located the cutback lane immediately and was gone.
No, that wasn't against an SEC defense. However, Smith's speed can't be ignored. The vast majority of running backs don't outrun defensive backs all the way down the field.
I've saved the best for last.
Back in the bowl game after the 2016 season against Louisiana-Lafayette, Smith pulled off one of the best runs I've seen over the past two seasons in college football.
It's not easy to find a more spectacular 19-yard touchdown run at the collegiate or NFL level. That run had everything; vision, explosiveness, lateral agility, a spin move, and impeccable balance.
Smith's versatility can't be ignored either.
He caught a whopping 132 passes in his final three seasons at Southern Miss at a remarkable 10.3-yards-per-catch clip with seven receiving touchdowns. Smith had eight games with 50 or more receiving yards.
The compact, 5-foot-9, 195-pound back, obviously in possession of tremendous athleticism, vision, and speed, is ready to be a productive ball-carrier in the NFL.
For GMs, Smith's under-the-radar status is good. He seems like a prospect who'll ultimately be picked somewhere between the second or fourth round.
I currently have him as my No. 76 overall player in the class, and the No. 8 running back. He's participating in the Senior Bowl and the combine, so his stock could continue to rise as he competes next to his contemporaries.
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