March 31, 2008

Smith working on, off field

After moving to wide receiver in pre-bowl practices at the end of last season - his third position in as many years - Keith Smith thinks he's finally found a place to stay.

Now, the redshirt sophomore is hoping he can become academically eligible so he can do more than just practice at his new position. Smith, you'll recall, was forced to leave school for the second semester of his freshman year while attending to a family emergency in his hometown of Fort Hood, Texas. Having returned last season as a partial qualifier - he redshirted - Smith is working to catch up in credit hours in an effort to regain full eligibility.

The law and society major is taking 17 credit hours this semester.

"And I'm going to take a couple (classes) in the summer to make sure I'm cleared," he said, "and everything will be good.

"Everything is going really smooth. … I am on track, yes sir, definitely."

If Smith completes the task, he could give Curtis Painter and Co. a big target come the fall. At 6-foot-2, 226-pounds, Smith isn't Purdue's prototypical slot receiver, but that's where he's lined up through the first week of spring ball.

With Desmond Tardy, Purdue's most experienced wide receiver outside senior Greg Orton, sidelined this spring by injury, Smith and senior Roberto McBean are splitting repetitions with the first-team offense.

"We're doing thunder and lightning inside," Smith said. "Roberto is nice and quick, a little smaller in the mold of Dorien (Bryant), and I come in as a big body."

Smith's ascent up the depth chart has come quickly. A quarterback at Shoemaker high school, he spent the first half of his freshman year behind center, before switching to - and seeing game action at - safety for the season's final handful of games.

But after missing spring practice attending to family matters at home, he returned last season, but was moved back to his original position of quarterback. An initial preview of his potential at wideout came prior to Purdue's game against Indiana, when Smith was asked to impersonate IU All-Big Ten receiver James Hardy. That scout-team performance was so good that the move became permanent a few weeks later.

"After that, I was like 'yeah, I definitely need to make this switch,'" Smith said.

It was during those pre-bowl practices that Coach Joe Tiller raved about Smith, saying then that he'd have a chance to contribute in the fall, assuming he catches up academically.

"He's doing too good," Tiller said. "I say that tongue-in-cheek, because I hope he makes it academically ... because he looks good at receiver. He's a physical receiver, which is something we haven't had in a while, with Greg Orton being the closest thing."

Smith says his transition has come rather easily, considering he knew the playbook well because of his experience at quarterback.

"I know all the routes, all the plays," Smith said. "It's just getting the technique down and the right distances for breaking off routes, stuff like that. Once I got that down, it's been good."

Smith says his greatest strength as a receiver is his size; he put on about 20 pounds during the off-season to get to his current 226. He calls himself deceptively fast, with an ability to get behind defensive backs.

"I have extra cushion to take the hit more and can lay out some hits," Smith said. "The biggest factor for me is to just be physical with everybody."

Painter says he likes what he's seen from Smith.

"Once he gets everything down in terms of the routes and the offense, I think he can be a big key for us," Painter said. "He's a huge target, and he has incredible athleticism in there. It'll be exciting to see what he can do.

"The last few years, we've had a little guy in there but that's the (different) dimension he brings. He's a big, physical guy who can go over the middle and take a hit if he has to."

After getting a taste of playing time as a safety two seasons ago, Smith says he can't wait for that feeling again.

"I'm definitely looking into contributing, if not starting," Smith said. "Hopefully I continue to improve and the coaches will see that. We'll see how the summer goes, then the fall, then we'll go out and play."

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