LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Jeremy Smith, apparently believing the grass looked greener elsewhere, left the University of Louisville football team after graduating this past spring, intending to transfer to use his final season of eligibility.
But things didn't work out the way he planned. Smith ultimately decided he had made a mistake, returned to U of L and now is making a bid to become the Cardinals' starting running back as they prepare to take on Western Kentucky (0-2) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Cardinal Stadium.
Smith (6-2, 225), a native of Hammond, La., played at Louisville from 2015-17 and then obtained his release to transfer following last season. He saw action in the season opener against Purdue in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury (a broken bone in his foot), but his application for a medical redshirt was approved by the NCAA, making him immediately eligible for a final year.
He began his career at Fresno City College before transferring to Louisville for the 2015 season. He finished third on the team in rushing in each of his first two seasons, with 117 total carries for 652 yards. A powerful runner and a good pass blocker, Smith averaged 6.7 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns as a junior. Had he been healthy last season, he probably would been the featured back for the Cards.
When he decided to transfer, he said he was interested in Louisiana State and Alabama, among others. U of L restricted him from transferring to Kentucky, Notre Dame and all ACC schools.
U of L running backs coach Kolby Smith (no relation) kept in contact with Jeremy and eventually told him he was welcome to return if he wanted.
"Being in contact with coach Smith, he let me know I always had a spot here," Jeremy said. "So it never felt like I wasn't going to play again."
U of L coach Bobby Petrino said Smith called him this summer and asked about returning.
"He thought he was going to go somewhere and play and he ended up with nowhere to go," Petrino said. "Maybe he really didn't understand the situation that some schools take graduate transfers for. I kept asking Kolby, 'Have you heard from Jeremy? Have you heard anything?' I had the thought in my mind that he might want to come back.
"Jeremy called and said, 'Hey, things didn't work out the way I thought they would.' So he came back. It gives him not only the opportunity to play another year, but maybe to play (professionally) after this year. It's worked out great."
Having fathered an infant son, Nate, with his girlfriend, it took a while for Smith to determine his next step, whether to continue his college career or move on and try to make use of his degree in sports administration.
"It kinda slowed me down at first," he said of Nate's arrival. "I had to think things through. I got everything squared away. It's good. She (his girlfriend) can kinda manage things on her own, so I feel like I can go out and do what I do with my life and still have a relationship with them."
Because he had to await clearance from from the NCAA, Smith wasn't able to start practicing un til Aug. 26, just eight days before UofL's season-opener against Alabama in Orlando, Fla. He traveled with the team to that game, but didn't play.
However, Smith provided a spark against Indiana State, rushing six times for a team-best 56 yards, including a 21-yard gain that helped set up UofL's go ahead touchdown late in the third quarter of the 31-7 win.
"I thought Jeremy did a nice job," Petrino said. "He really gave us some physical, hard running, broke tackles. I was impressed with him."
Smith said he's still not in great shape, although he added that he nonetheless feels like he could play an entire game.
"I'm not at the point I was before I left," he said. "I feel like I'm a step behind, so I'm still trying to get back to that spot. In a game, your motor's going so fast, you feel like you can stay out there, but sometimes at some point in practice I feel like I'm just dead."
Smith said his goals this year are to be "an every-down back" and to be more productive than he was in his first two seasons.
"I feel like I have the speed to break away from tackles with long runs and can also be the grinder up the middle and fight for tough yards, and also block and catch passes. As a running back, you have to be able to do all three of those things: run, catch and block.
"I was excited just to be back on the field. I left a lot of things undone. I didn't set a landmark for myself when I was here before. I want to reach the goals I've set for myself. I want to be a 1,000-yard rusher, which I think I can accomplish."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.