ASU’s Smith emerging into difference-maker

TEMPE, Ariz. — With less than three minutes to play and Arizona State trailing Utah 19-14 last Saturday, the Sun Devils needed a big play. That Richard Smith provided the go-ahead touchdown with a 14-yard grab seemed poetic in the context of the receiver’s troubled first half of the season.

After struggling mightily early in the year despite a strong preseason, Smith has emerged recently as the offensive presence coaches expected him to be and may just be better off for having faced the adversity.

“The thing that really molds you as a player and even as a coach is the tough times,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “He’s a guy that’s really grown up in the last few weeks and a guy that’s a big-time, essential part of what we’re doing offensively.”

It would have seemed improbable a few weeks ago that Smith would make the decisive play in ASU’s nail-biter in Salt Lake City. The sophomore had just weeks earlier fallen somewhat out of favor.

The trouble started in ASU’s second game of the season, the wild win over Wisconsin. Smith dropped at least three passes in the game, one of them on a critical third down. Against Stanford the next week, he had another drop.

Smith’s worst moment, though, came in the primetime game against Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium. With ASU trailing 17-13 in the third quarter, Smith caught a pass but fumbled almost immediately. The Irish recovered and needed just two plays to take a 24-13 lead in the game they won 37-34.

Graham called the fumble “the play of the game” — obviously not in the way he’d have liked it to be. Smith says that while he never lost confidence in himself during the rough stretch, the miscues took their toll.

“I hated myself because I knew that wasn’t the receiver I was,” Smith said. “I was dropping passes and all that stuff. So of course I was disappointed in myself, but I knew it was me that needed to make a change.”

Smith saw limited action the next couple weeks. He took the time to figure out what was going on. One day, Smith says, he simply said to himself, “This isn’t me.” In fall camp, Graham called Smith the most improved player on offense. He earned a starting job. Now, he was barely seeing the field.

Something had to change, and Smith pinpointed some bad habits he had to shed. He kept working, doing whatever he could to regain the trust of his coaches.

“After those things happened early in the season, the first thing you can do is go, ‘Woe is me,'” receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “You can start to get down on yourself and start to give off that kind of body language, but he’s consistently tried to push and say, ‘Hey, I’m okay,’ and go out and give good energy. And now, here on the back half of the season, that energy is what’s finding the football.”

Against Washington State on Oct. 31, Smith got a first-quarter chance and caught a 12-yard pass that set up an ASU touchdown. It apparently got offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s attention, as he later looked to Smith again.

“It was after a three-and-out on defense, and we got the ball and he was, like, ‘You want to go over the top?'” Smith recalled. “I was, like, ‘Yeah,’ so that was my shot to redeem all the bad I came from at the beginning of the year. I was just thinking, ‘This is my opportunity — I’m not going to let it pass me again.'”

It took some serious effort to deliver on the opportunity. Quarterback Taylor Kelly’s pass was underthrown, putting the defensive back in an advantageous position. Smith turned around to reach for it, batted it up, bobbled it a second time and finally pulled the ball in amid the defender’s pass interference. The 51-yard touchdown gave ASU a 35-7 lead.

Smith’s catch against Utah was even bigger. He had gone from liability to difference-maker.

“Big-time catch — that was the game-winner,” Graham said. “Rick is extremely talented and I think in the last few weeks really got his confidence.”

As much as Smith would have preferred not to deal with the early adversity, he’s ultimately glad he did.

“I had to get back to my roots, which is being consistent,” Smith said. “I think I needed it just to humble me a little bit more and make me really work for what I want.”

Alexander shared Smith’s feelings, saying he never wants to see players drop a pass or fumble but admitting Smith has improved because of the struggles.

“I think he has matured from his adversity,” Alexander said. “When you don’t have adversity, sometimes you don’t know how tough it is, but he’s definitely shown some growth.”

Smith now has 17 catches for 203 yards on the season, with seven of those catches and 115 of those yards coming in the past two games. Smith’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time, with top receiver Jaelen Strong’s production down as he continues dealing with an ankle injury.

With Smith apparently a reliable option in the passing game now, ASU’s high-powered offense that ranks second in the Pac-12 has yet another weapon to deploy as the Sun Devils make their push for the conference title game … and perhaps beyond.

Though Smith may have taken a difficult, frustrating path to this point, he is happy to have his redemption.

“It feels good to finally be the receiver I know that I can be,” Smith said. “It just shows me that I can’t ever give up. And I can get better, so I’ve just got to keep working hard.”