NC State head coach Tom O'Brien likes to joke that when he began talking about how significant the return of then-true freshman corner Rashard Smith was to the team that he knew at that point he had lost his mind. O'Brien could not believe that the situation in the secondary had become so dire that he was wishing for the return of a corner that had just arrived on campus a few months ago.
It also speaks however to the talent that is Smith. He impressed quickly as a rookie and started three of the first five games, making 12 tackles, including two for losses and a sack, and breaking up a pass. He then hurt his knee against Boston College and would miss the rest of the season.
This spring though Smith is healthy.
"It feels pretty good to be back," Smith said. "The day that I got hurt, the trainers told me after the game that I have to come in to the training room and work hard to get back on the field.
"I came in and did what I was supposed to do. I went into work every day, and helped my team out by being able to come back out on the field in the spring.
O'Brien notes that this spring is an important one for the sophomore.
"I think he's fine physically, and he's a guy that understands the game," O'Brien said. "He knows how to line up. He anticipates things, he recognizes things, which are good things to do and a good place to be. He can certainly get better and better as we go along here. He needs as much work as he can get this spring because he missed so much time last year."
The injury was difficult for Smith. It was not his first experience being hurt, but he had never missed an extended period of time like that.
"It was also a reality check," Smith said. "You see your team out there playing and I was supposed to be out there, helping them get better and win.
"The most difficult part about it, was sitting there and knowing I can't help my team get better in any kind of way. I was just sitting on the sideline watching."
Smith, 5-foot-11, 176 pounds, though feels like he gained a lot from the 2009 season, one that should prepare him well for the future.
"The coaches expected big things from me. I came in and learned the system real fast. I was able to step in as a young player and help the team. The upperclassmen like [former defensive end] Willie Young and [former defensive tackle] Alan-Michael Cash, and even some of the younger people that were sophomores and juniors last year, helped me. I just came out here and worked hard."
Now Smith is expected to go from being a rookie to one of the anchors of the secondary in just a matter of one season, further evidence to how young the defensive backfield continues to be. Smith though denies feeling any pressure.
"We just have to come out and work hard every day," Smith said. "If we are too tight and real focused, you won't be able to do so well. You have to be loose and have fun. That's what we are going to do with a young secondary on a experienced veteran team, and have fun every day."