Smith, Gators reap benefit of new NCAA rule

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- The Ryan Smith story -- working title: "How I Thought I Was Going to Howard University and Wound Up in the National Championship Game" -- is a triumph of fortuitous timing.

Need (Florida's) and speed (Smith's, on the field and in the classroom) combined with fresh NCAA legislation that allows a college graduate to transfer and be eligible immediately. Suddenly, a disillusioned Utah cornerback who appeared on his way to a Division I-AA school last summer made the detour of all detours.

Instead of playing football in total obscurity, Smith landed in the Gators' secondary just in time to become a first-team All-SEC cornerback and an irreplaceable member of the SEC champions.

"It's been pretty crazy," Smith understated.

The guy was little more than an Internet myth during the summer, as rumors of his potential arrival in Gainesville started to circulate. He finally showed up in August in the flesh -- not in time to make it into the Florida media guide, much less into the hearts and minds of Florida fans.

College coaches are meticulous about their recruiting. Obsessive, even. And if you ask around, nobody is more meticulous/obsessive than Urban Meyer. Which makes the Ryan Smith show-up-on-your-doorstep development downright ironic.

"He just kind of dropped out of the sky," said defensive backs coach Chuck Heater, who is especially close with Smith.

Smith's parachute jump into the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game happened only because of a rule that could be voted out of existence this weekend at the NCAA convention in Orlando, one year after it was enacted. But when the college brass granted immediate eligibility to transfers who had both a degree and a year or two left to play, the door sprang open for Ryan Smith to appear in Gainesville.

He'd already decided to transfer from Utah, where he was named a second-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News. After starting all 12 games as a redshirt freshman for the Utes during their dream undefeated season in 2004, Smith had a falling out with the coaching staff that took over after Meyer left for Florida. He was benched after starting the first half of the 2005 season.

He finally quit the team during the spring.

"I didn't show up for practice," Smith said. "That let them know I didn't want to be there."

That left Smith pondering which I-AA school he might attend. He'd pretty well settled on Howard, where he had a couple of friends in school.

The Washington, D.C., school is a long way from home in California, a long way from Utah and a very long way from the position Smith now maintains as an anchor of the Gators' secondary.

Tell Florida defensive lineman Joe Cohen that Smith almost wound up at Howard, and watch his eyebrows arch in surprise.

"Howard?" Cohen said, incredulity in his voice. "Howard?"

He chuckled at the thought.

"I'm just glad he didn't go to Howard and came to be with us," Cohen said.

Smith said following Meyer and Heater, his position coach at Utah, didn't appear to be a possibility until summer. That's when his father, Lance, found out about the NCAA graduate transfer rule -- and that's when the Smiths contacted Florida.

"We didn't have to recruit him," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "He recruited us."

This was a tremendous development for the Gators, who lost starting cornerback Avery Atkins to off-field issues. The chance to have a proven player with quality college experience at the only weak position on the depth chart was too good to be true.

Of course, all Smith had to do was cram a dizzying 21 credit hours of classwork into summer school to graduate in 3½ years. And all of it was classroom work -- no online degree scamming.

Smith took six classes at once, including "a stats class that was kicking my butt." He survived stats by a couple of percentage points, got all the other work done and got his diploma.

"It was hectic," Smith said. "But it was all worth it."

On Aug. 8, the third day of preseason practice, Meyer introduced the Gators to their new teammate. On Sept. 2, Smith was starting at corner against Southern Mississippi. He's never left the lineup since then.

"When Ryan Smith showed up I was like, 'Who is this guy?'" Cohen said. "Nobody knew what to expect from Ryan Smith. But he blended in with everybody. He was one of us within a week."

Thirteen games down the line, here's what Smith has contributed to the Gators' cause: eight interceptions (tied for third nationally), seven passes broken up, 52 total tackles and two blocked kicks. For a team that wasn't sure how it was going to cover some of the SEC's best and fastest, Smith has become the answer.

And, rather unexpectedly, he's also become the one Florida player who knows what it's like to play in a BCS bowl game. Smith was a key contributor when the Utes blitzed Pittsburgh in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl two years ago, and the Gators are staying in the same hotel Utah used.

"We are underdogs once again," Smith said (although Utah was favored in that game). "It is not a problem at all. It is nothing I haven't been through."

Ryan Smith has been through plenty in a short period of time just to get here. He's Florida's walking definition of right guy, right place, right time.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.