WILLIAMSBURG — The low point, Ryan Smith said, came midway through the 2011 season. Three years in, the William and Mary cornerback was injured and demoted to the scout team, where he was getting no reps in practices or scrimmages.
As a walk-on, the Tribe wasn't exactly keeping Smith's place warm for when he was healthy and full speed, either. Heartbreaking as it would have been for him, he considered quitting and concentrating on school and his future.
But teammates and fraternity brothers Jerome Couplin, Terrell Wells and Jabrel Mines pushed him to stay, and a preseason pledge he made to the team and program convinced him to persevere.
"I look back on that commitment that I made to the team," Smith said, "and I thought that if I were to quit during the season … when I wasn't playing, that going back on that commitment would be kind of losing, I guess respect and losing your word, basically."
Smith's progress matched his word. Two years later, he is a starting cornerback and an example as much as a football player, as the Tribe (3-2) prepares to host Penn (2-1) 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Zable Stadium in its final non-conference game of the season.
"I would say this year is definitely special," said Smith, 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. "It means the world to me. The guys on the team, just being out here playing football. I love everything about it. I wish I would have had the experience to play a lot sooner."
That wasn't in the cards for Smith, a lightly recruited player from Prince George, Va., by way of the Blue Ridge School in Charlottesville. He was admitted to William and Mary, academically, and was invited to try out for the football team, with no guarantees.
Smith was what's referred to as a "school start walk-on," meaning that he wasn't permitted to practice with the team until school officially began. He tried out the last Saturday before the 2009 season. His first practice was the Monday before the Tribe defeated Virginia in the '09 opener.
"It is very, very easy for a guy like him, early on, to just get very discouraged and say, I'm not going to play here; why am I doing this?" head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "But he just kept working, kept working, kept hanging in there."
Smith began to stand out in coaches' evaluations, Laycock said, not just as diligent, but as a player who made few mistakes and was productive in practice. He eventually earned spot time on special teams and was tracking upward.
"The biggest thing is taking advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, because you might only get one or two chances," said offensive guard James Johnson, also a walk-on who quickly established himself and has started 27 games. "Being somebody that they don't expect to contribute right away, you have to kind of push the issue. A walk-on probably isn't going to get as many opportunities as a scholarship guy, so you have to show it when those one or two chances come up."
But Smith injured his foot playing basketball in the offseason and required surgery, which shelved him heading into the 2011 season. That's when he considered quitting and when his teammates convinced him otherwise.
"They saw the potential," he said. "At the time, I didn't really see it. I thought, I'm just doing this for nothing. I'm just practicing on scout team. I'm not playing."
By last season, Smith was a backup cornerback and a regular on special teams. Last spring, he earned a starting spot at cornerback following the departure of NFL draft pick B.W. Webb. When he met with Laycock at the end of spring practice, he was awarded a full scholarship for his senior year.
"It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life, just to see all this hard work pay off," he said.
Smith's career mirrors that of former Tribe cornerback Ben Cottingham, who also began as a "school start walk-on" and eventually became a starter and scholarship player.
"What they may lack early in their career in raw ability," Laycock said, "but what they do would be the technique and learning the technique and doing it right every time, and always be in the right place at the right time and doing things right and working hard. Pretty soon, they develop into good players."
Smith has 22 tackles and five pass break-ups. Where opponents last year were reluctant to test Webb, an all-conference and All-American cornerback currently with the Dallas Cowboys, there is little hesitation to throw at Smith and fellow corner DeAndre Houston-Carson.
Smith relishes the challenge.
"At corner," he said, "to be able to line up against somebody who might think he's faster, might think he's stronger, might think he's better and just stop that man from having success, stop that man from catching a pass. Or making a tackle when you're not supposed to make that tackle. Just the feeling after you make a play is an adrenaline rush that it's hard to match in other areas of my life — or life in general."
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