Smith on path to start for Lions in Week 1

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — His injuries took him out. Injuries to others have put him back in.

That’s the reality of running back Kevin Smith’s career with the Detroit Lions.

A year ago, Smith couldn’t even find an NFL team that would invite him to training camp.

“I was trying any way to get on a team, any team,” Smith said. “I needed a job to feed my family.”

Now, more than likely, Smith will be the starting running back in the Lions’ Sept. 9 season opener against the St. Louis Rams.

The two players who were expected to replace Smith — Jahvid Best (first-round pick in 2010) and Mikel Leshoure (second-round pick in 2011) — now are the ones who are unavailable. And that has reopened the door for Smith.

Best still hasn’t been cleared for contact after suffering two concussions last season. Leshoure, coming off surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, has missed much of camp because of a hamstring injury. He also must serve a two-game league suspension to start the season because of offseason marijuana arrests.

Smith is taking advantage of the opportunity.

“It looks like he found himself a home here again,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said. “I’m excited for him, proud of him for what he did. He’s going to be a big part of this offense.”

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan added: “You can count on Kevin being out there through thick and thin. I really respect that.”

It’s been a full-circle resurgence for Smith, a third-round pick by the Lions in 2008.

He rushed for 1, 723 yards and 12 touchdowns in 29 games (25 starts) during his first two years in the league.

However, late in the 2009 season, Smith tore an anterior cruciate ligament in is left knee. He tried to come back in 2010 but simply wasn’t the same player, finishing with 133 yards and no touchdowns in six games.

The Lions chose not to re-sign him before last season. The club was planning to go in a different direction with a one-two punch of Best and Leshoure, but Best’s future remains unclear and Leshoure has more arrests than carries.

The Lions ended up bringing back Smith last November out of desperation. He produced, including a 140-yard rushing performance against Carolina in his second game back, before a sprained ankle slowed him late in the season.

“I had to work hard, shut my ears to all the naysayers and the doubters, just have tunnel vision basically,” Smith said of his comeback. “That’s just who I am. I’ve never had it easy. I’ve always had to start from the bottom.”

His perseverance through it all was impressive. He got knocked down pretty hard.

Some thought he was knocked out and never expected to hear from him again, especially with the Lions.

But here he is, the No. 1 option at the moment.

“I think that’s how you’re defined — if you can get back up,” Smith said. “I had to face some adversity. Every man will.

“Life isn’t easy for anybody. You can just ask some of the people out here in Detroit. They’re facing a lot of adversity with the economy.

“It’s all about fighting. When you get knocked down, just get back up.”

He got up and is arguably as good as ever.

This is his fifth year with the Lions. Smith knows the offense “inside and out,” according to head coach Jim Schwartz.

Schwartz also calls Smith “a very consistent player . . . a leader for us.”

The concern is going to be whether Smith can stay healthy, especially if he has to take on a heavier workload early in the season before Leshoure and/or Best are ready.

Smith has a reputation for being injury-prone. The Lions will need to use him wisely between now and the opener because he’s become a key part that can’t be lost under the circumstances.

“I’m strong, I’m healthy,” Smith said. “I have no nicks or bruises, no injuries. That’s a blessing.

“It’s the best I’ve ever felt, body-wise, mentally. I love playing football. I come to work with a smile on my face every day.”

That smile is because he’s got a job in the NFL. He couldn’t say that a year ago.