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THURSDAY, AUGUST 9, 2007
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Former walk-on AU's go-to guy
Hard work, long hours
paying off for WR Smith

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com 340-2460

AUBURN — Only a few managers remained, picking up empty water bottles, lugging bags of equipment from what was now two bare practice fields.

The train of Auburn football players, sweaty and tired, could be seen several hundred yards away entering the locker room at a gingerly pace. Their helmets swung by their sides and their cleats crunched under the concrete of the parking lot.

Less than eight hours from now, the players would return to the practice fields for the nightcap of the opening day of two-a-days, but that didn't bother receiver Rod Smith.

He was the only player left on the field, catching 10-yard passes as they shot out of the throwing machine.

One after the other, the balls ended planted in his soft hands. He caught them from the left side and then the right side. He caught them high and then low. Wherever they landed, he caught them.

"He's always been a hard worker," Smith's receivers coach Greg Knox said, "so his hard work paid off."

In a literal sense.

Smith, a walk-on for the past two years, was granted a scholarship this summer.

The junior from Snellville, Ga., no longer has to pay for his education. Nor does he have to fork over money for food or books or rent. He's a scholarship guy now, one of more than 80 on the Auburn football team.

"Basically, everything was coming out of my pocket," Smith said, still breathing heavy from running 10 30-yard sprints to end practice. "I was paying for everything. My family was taking care of me."

Named the team's Most Improved Offensive Skill Player of the spring by coaches, Smith comes into this preseason camp as the No. 1 wide receiver. He'll be the go-to guy for senior quarterback Brandon Cox.

That's a long way from being a skinny walk-on freshman who was recovering from a serious knee injury. Smith hurt his knee during a pickup game of basketball in high school, a mistake he regrets.

"I wasn't supposed to be playing basketball," he said with a trace of embarrassment in his voice. "I made a stupid mistake."

The injury not only forced him to miss some games of his senior season, but it scared off interested colleges — Tennessee and Vanderbilt among others.

So, he walked on at Auburn and took the true test of adversity. While all of the scholarship players roomed together in the dorms and ate together in the cafeteria — all free of course — Smith was paying rent and working hard to get noticed by coaches.

Adversity has been a large part of his life so far.

He had to recover from that high school injury, and even when he did, schools stayed away, not wanting to take the risk that comes with signing an injured player.

"Why would they take a chance on a guy who has had a major injury in high school?" Smith asked.

He knew it might be a long shot walking on to a program like Auburn, but he took the chance, worked hard and it paid off.

"To say that you are going to walk-on at Auburn, that's a major step. That's a step I talked to with my family," Smith said. "We all decided I was going to come down to Auburn and work my hardest, and if everything worked out, hopefully I would get that scholarship. And that's pretty much what happened."

Smith had the luxury of learning from two of the best receivers in school history: Courtney Taylor and Devin Aromashodu. Taylor has caught the most passes in Auburn's history and is fourth in receiving yards. Aromashodu ranks 11th in yardage.

With two years remaining, Smith will attempt to join them in the school's record books. He hopes to capitalize on a breakthrough 2006 season that saw his numbers skyrocket.

He played sparingly during his freshman season, catching only six passes in seven games.

But last year he finished second on the team, behind Taylor, with 26 catches for 452 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns. That coupled with a superlative spring helped him earn that scholarship.

"He's really worked hard and earned the right to be the starter," coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Tuberville remembers Smith's first few practices during his freshman year.

"From the first day he was out there, he was catching the ball well," he said. "But he just wasn't physically ready to play in this league."

Smith got ready for SEC play by bulking up in the weight room. He's more than 10 pounds heavier than he was this time last year.

At 6-foot, 188 pounds, Smith is prepared to take on his next challenge he's ready to fight through the next level of adversity that awaits him: living up to the hype.

"Rod is going to be a playmaker for us," Tuberville said.

"He's a guy that's unassuming. You don't really notice he's out there until he does make a big play."

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