If all Rodney Smith ever contributed to Minnesota was a recruiting tip, well, that would have been pretty valuable.
Golden Gophers assistant coach Brian Anderson was visiting Smith in the fall of 2013 when he casually asked him who was the best player he’d ever gone up against. Smith pointed to his teammate at Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Georgia, a skinny, under-the-radar prospect named Jonathan Celestin.
That caught Anderson’s attention, and Celestin – whose best recruiting offers at the time were from Valdosta State and Western Carolina – ended up signing with Minnesota a few months later. The junior linebacker is now the team’s leading tackler.
“I thank everything to Rodney,” Celestin said. “He’s why I’m here.”
Of course, Smith has done more for the Gophers than just help them discover Celestin. Something of a hidden gem himself, the redshirt sophomore has played a large role in the team’s 6-2 record. Though he came into the season generally considered “the other young Minnesota tailback,” Smith is the third-leading rusher in the Big Ten with 801 yards on 153 carries. He’s tied with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley for the league lead with 11 total touchdowns.
Smith showed potential in his debut season in 2015, when he ran for 670 yards and two touchdowns. But that was overshadowed by another freshman running back from Georgia in the same backfield: Shannon Brooks.
Brooks ran for 709 yards and seven scores in 2015 and got most of the offseason hype. Smith, however, took on the No. 1 tailback role when Brooks hurt his foot in fall camp and hasn’t looked back since. He has had six games of 99 rushing yards or more this season, including last week’s 100-yard, two-touchdown showing against Illinois.
Smith credits his work in the weight room, film study and experience for this year’s breakout. He also focused on taking care of his body more after minor injuries slowed him down last season.
“I’m proud of the way he’s been rewarded for the work he’s put into it,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “He’s become a much more complete back.”
Smith has flashed a signature spin move on his way to the end zone this season. He learned from his father, Patrick, who coached him in football and baseball all throughout his childhood, in high school and even now on the phone after games.
“We worked on it a lot, and I’ve tried to master it,” Smith said of his spin move. “It gets you out of some sticky situations sometimes.”
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One of those sticky situations happened late in his junior year of high school. He tore his ACL, which kept him from attending prospect camps the following spring. He had offers from Southern Miss and East Carolina, but the only serious Power 5 interest came from Anderson, who scouts Georgia for the Gophers.
Anderson’s main concern in the recruitment process was losing Smith to the Major League Baseball draft. A middle infielder who patterned his game after Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes, Smith hit .587 with 22 stolen bases his senior year at Mundy’s Mills. But Smith, who got a little wistful for baseball while watching the World Series this week, figured a college football scholarship was a better deal than the peanuts a late-round baseball draft pick receives.
Smith knew nothing about Minnesota when the school first pursued him --“I didn’t even know what conference they were in,” he said. So his recommendation of Celestin wasn’t just based on his longtime friend’s talent. It included some self-interest.
“I was kind of nervous about coming up here by myself,” he said.
He and Celestin have roomed together since they came to Minneapolis, and they’ve bonded with other Georgia natives on the team, such as safety Duke McGhee, cornerback Jalen Myrick and offensive lineman Vincent Calhoun.
“When we were going through rough things our freshman year, it was good to come back to the room and talk,” Celestin said. “We’d keep each other’s head up, so we wouldn’t just try and leave and go back home.”
Smith is also close with backfield mate Brooks, who has run for 472 yards and five scores since returning from his injury. The two spend a lot of time off the field together, talking about school and life and things outside of football. Between the lines they push each other, forming one of the Big Ten’s top running back tandems.
It’s reminiscent in some ways of Minnesota’s legendary 1-2 punch at tailback: Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III.
“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys is special,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say we’re pushing to be like them. But we look to them for guidance and inspiration, to feel like we can do some of the same things they did.”
Smith still has work to do to get to that level, and leading the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten West Division title is his current goal. But he’s already provided the program some extremely valuable contributions.