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Smith is Arkansas' little man who could

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Michael Smith's alarm clock goes off every morning at 5 o'clock. Sometimes he sleeps in to 5:15.

The Arkansas junior tailback has the routine down pat by now. At a listed height of 5-foot-7 and a listed weight of 173 pounds, he has no choice if he's going to keep trading blows with SEC defenders and remain in one piece.

"My legs are my insurance, and they have to be ready to go every Saturday," Smith said. "I'm not like a lot of those guys out there. I'm not carrying 210 or 215 pounds. I'd like to have close to that weight."

Nope, the SEC's leading rusher isn't even carrying 170 pounds. At least he wasn't a few weeks ago the last time he could bear looking at the scale.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to say this," Smith said sheepishly. "But I played the Auburn game at 163 pounds. I was having trouble holding weight. I guess I was doing too much and not giving enough back to my body.

"They told me they were going to go with me to breakfast, lunch and dinner and then I was going to get a couple of shakes, too. I've gained some weight back. How much? I don't want to know. If I get on the scale, I turn my head and tell them, 'Don't call out the number.'

"They just tell me to keep eating and that I'll be OK."

Of course, "they" aren't staring 240-pound linebackers in the face when they come darting through the hole, either.

Smith's early-morning regimen has become legendary around the Arkansas football complex. Several hours before he sets foot in his first class, he's in the training room taking ice baths, contrast baths, getting massages, doing stabilizing exercises, getting in some extra lifting for his legs, getting in some extra stretching, anything he has to do to keep going.

He's also usually the last one to leave the training room after practice is over and is never too far from the weight room. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in strength. Smith can bench-press 370 pounds and has squatted more than 500 pounds.

"Yeah, I'm banged up, but this is football. My mind is what keeps me into it," said Smith, who ranks sixth nationally in rushing with an average of 131.4 yards per game and has already carried the ball an SEC-leading 163 times. "No matter how banged up you are, you brush it off and get ready for the next game. When you're the workhorse, that's the mentality you have to have.

"I'm like that old Chevy that keeps on running and keeps on clicking. You might have to kick it to get it started. But when it's running and running good, it's not going to let you down."

Other coaches around the league shake their heads in amazement at what the diminutive Smith has been able to do in a league known for defense.

And it's not like Smith is a specialty player, either. He carried the ball 35 times in each of the Auburn and Kentucky games in successive weeks. He left the game with the Wildcats in the fourth quarter two weeks ago after being knocked out.

Despite the concussion and despite not getting any contact work all week in practice, Smith was right back on the field against Ole Miss the next game and rushed for 129 yards. He has five 100-yard rushing games this season, including a career high of 192 against Kentucky, heading into Saturday's non-conference battle with No. 18 Tulsa.

"He's a remarkable guy," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "To get the ball in his hands as much as he has and for his size, any size really, and to have the number of carries and the number of catches and the number of punishing hits he's taken and survive is remarkable in my opinion."

Smith's old coach, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt, pulled him aside after the game last Saturday and told him how proud he was of him, especially given the fact that Smith had to sit and watch Darren McFadden and Felix Jones get all the carries the last two years.

"The heart he's shown ... he's one of the best backs in the conference, if not the best back," Nutt said.

Smith has flourished in Bobby Petrino's system and is also the Razorbacks' second leading receiver with 26 catches for 281 yards. With 920 rushing yards and four games remaining, he has a chance to do something this season that's never been done in the SEC.

If he keeps his current pace, Smith would become the first player in SEC history to rush for more than 1,200 yards and catch 40 or more passes in the same season.

Some have come close. Tennessee's Arian Foster just missed last season when he rushed for 1,193 yards and caught 39 passes.

Florida's Ciatrick Fason rushed for 1,267 yards and caught 35 passes in 2004. Kentucky's Artose Pinner rushed for 1,414 yards and caught 37 passes in 2002. Florida's Errict Rhett rushed for 1,289 yards and caught 36 passes in 1993 and rushed for 1,109 yards and caught 40 passes in 1991. LSU's Dalton Hilliard rushed for 1,134 yards and caught 34 passes in 1985.

There have been others, but those are the closest. Now, Smith gets his shot at SEC history.

Then again, some would say he's already made history. It's not every day that a 5-7, 160-some-pound tailback makes a run at the SEC rushing and all-purpose yardage titles.

"He's done more than we ever could have imagined as far as being productive, staying healthy and mentoring a lot of our younger guys," Petrino said. "I worried going into the year how many carries he could take, but he's actually gotten stronger and has done a great job taking care of his body.

"The more you watch him, the more you admire him. He's taken some big hits, but not a lot of them. He's so good at seeing what's coming and finding creases, and he's unbelievably quick.

"I know he's little, but he's amazing."

Smith said Petrino has played a big role in his development and credited the Razorbacks' first-year coach for making him a more complete player.

"Just knowing what's going to happen has been the big thing with coach Petrino," Smith said. "He's taught me so much about reading defenses and understanding defenses and understanding how our offense works. He really knows the game of football and has shared that knowledge with us. I know it's helped make my reaction time a lot quicker.

"I'm sure people say we haven't been as successful and our offense isn't working like it should because of our record (3-5, 1-4 SEC), but it's still a learning process for a lot of the guys. It will eventually come along and click the way coach Petrino wants it to."

There's nothing wrong with the way Smith has been clicking, and he's already heard from McFadden. The former Hogs' star has been texting Smith pretty regularly.

His message: Way to represent.

"We have a tradition around here that I want to keep alive," said Smith, who's attempting to make it three consecutive seasons that a Razorback has led the SEC in rushing.

"Here's the other thing: I've been waiting on this for a long time, and I'm not the most patient guy. So sitting around the last few years and watching Darren and Felix wasn't my idea of fun. I'm going to make the most of every carry and every touch
... and not going to take no for an answer."

He never has.