Rodney Smith well-seasoned to compete for RB job with Panthers

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rodney Smith was looking for a three-peat. The new Carolina Panthers running back tweaked his recipe for success from the previous two years, knowing you don’t improve without putting in the extra time and practice to get better. He thought he’d spiced things up with just the right blend of new with the old to remain on top.

But he lost. It wasn't on the football field, where the former University of Minnesota running back had overcome two ACL injuries. It was the "Running Backs Top Chef Cook Off" held annually by Gophers running backs coach Kenni Burns.

“I rigged it,” Burns said with a laugh. “He couldn’t go out three years in a row as a winner.”

But the qualities that allowed Smith to overcome adversity in football are the same ones that make him a success grilling ribs. He adapts and doesn’t settle. He’s always looking for an edge that will take his game to the next level.

“I’m resilient,” Smith said from his home in Mundy’s Mill, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. “Anytime you get injured and have to bounce back, it’s tough. The unknown variables. Will I play football again?

“I can’t let the circumstance keep me down. That helped me grow into the young man I am now.”

Smith has no illusion of beating out Christian McCaffrey as Carolina’s starting running back. He understands that McCaffrey, who last season became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, is special.

But Smith does have a chance to be the back who gives McCaffrey an occasional break and perhaps holds down the position in case of injury.

None of the players ahead of him on the depth chart are established -- Reggie Bonnafon, Mike Davis and 2019 fifth-round pick Jordan Scarlett, who is coming off knee and ankle injuries.

Burns believes Smith’s style, which is not much different than McCaffrey’s in terms of being an all-purpose back, gives him a chance.

“They both can do things outside. They both are great in space. They both have great top-end speed,” he said. “Christian is a little more refined than Rodney, but Rodney can get there for sure.”

The journey

Smith suffered his first ACL injury in his junior year of high school, a critical time for college recruits. Despite recovering to rush for more than 2,200 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior, his college options were limited to Minnesota, East Carolina and a few smaller schools.

“If you ask anyone I grew up with, I told them I wanted to go the farthest place away I could go,” Smith said.

That was Minnesota and a cold climate far from what he was accustomed to in the barbecue-friendly South. He was enjoying a stellar college career, too, before suffering his second ACL tear during his redshirt senior year.

Fortunately for Smith, the NCAA granted a sixth season. He took advantage with a career-high 1,163 yards rushing, which ranked third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins (Ravens) and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor (Colts), who each were picked in the second round of the draft last month.

“My goal to be a professional athlete was still right in front of me,” Smith said.

Then Smith got banged up in the Outback Bowl against Auburn, which kept him from competing in the East-West Shrine game in front of NFL scouts. He didn't receive an invitation to the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic that kept him from visiting NFL teams or holding a pro day. Teams had to settle for a virtual video in which he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds.

Burns had about 15 teams call with questions before the draft, but none took a chance on draft day.

“A lot of people were, ‘OK, this kid is a second team All-Big Ten back for an 11-win team. He was productive on that team. What’s the story here?" Burns said. “Everybody had that question: What’s wrong with him?’"

Secret recipe

Smith has spent a lot of down time during the pandemic trying to perfect his rib recipe that he initially learned from Tyrone Carter, a former Minnesota defensive back who played in the NFL from 2000-10 and won two Super Bowls with the Steelers.

Much of what he learned centered on seasoning.

“First I smell the seasoning and think about what I like,” he said. “I like to put cinnamon on my stuff to get a sweet taste.”

Burns can’t deny the savory flavor of Smith’s ribs last year. He also can’t deny that his arm-twisting of the judges -- his wife, daughter, father-in-law and a few others -- helped then-redshirt freshman Preston Jelen win for his salmon.

“He let one of the young guys win ... to give him some confidence,” Smith said.

Smith’s recipe for success on the field starts with great instincts and acceleration even after the knee surgeries. He has an ability to make great cuts and get his hips vertically square. He also is a solid route-runner with good hands, but he didn’t get used a lot out of the backfield because the Gophers had a talented group of receivers.

“He’s as dynamic as any back I’ve been around,” Burns said.

Smith aspires to one day be like other undrafted backs who became stars, from Priest Holmes to Arian Foster to Fred Jackson.

Burns believes Smith’s intelligence increases those chances.

“I know the coach from the Panthers was really impressed with how far along he was,” he said. “People a year or two from now are going to look at this kid and wonder how he got to where he is.”