August 16, 2007

‘Role player’ is on a roll

Sans Smart’s speed, offence would be in deep trouble

By Lowell Ullrich,
Vancouver Province

Ian Smart sat in his locker stall and trotted out the phrase delivered so often by players not possessing a Barry Bonds ego when talking about themselves.

“I’m just a role player,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me what I do as long as I’m doing something.”

It’s that kind of conditioned response that normally might make you take one look at the Lions depth chart and dismiss the 26-year-old Jamaican as nothing more than a reserve import running back trying to rationalize his circumstance.

But it is clear, especially considering their current offensive struggles, that Smart has played a role far greater in the early success of the CFL club.

As a kickoff and punt returner marking his first full season with the Lions after being signed last August, Smart is quietly generating the kind of yardage that could propel him alongside the best in the three-down game.

It goes unheralded because he has not assembled a full-length highlight reel of returns that have resulted in touchdowns for the Lions.

However, a visual review of the team’s offensive production to date without the yards Smart has generated on special teams would only be classified as an outright horror show.

With 1,100 yards combined from punts, kickoffs and missed field-goal returns, Smart not only leads the CFL but is a little more than just 200 yards behind the numbers put together by the Lions’ entire pass offence.

An even better measure of Smart’s worth, however, rests with the fact the team is fifth in the CFL when combining special teams yardage, which generates field position, with their offensive numbers (see chart, above).

Without him, the Lions have the worst-rated offence in the league and wouldn’t be able to see the end zone without binoculars when starting drives. At 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, you could call him a Smart bomb.

It took a while for Smart to get used to the fact that coach Wally Buono doesn’t want his returner playing another position on a regular basis.

Then he bought into the idea floated by the Lions that special teams is just a form of offence, only without a huddle.

Still, even the Lions get tempted occasionally to give Smart more touches, especially after he scored their only offensive touchdown in their Grey Cup win last year.

“I may not see the ball on offence but I treat special teams like my snap on offence,” said Smart, named the league’s special teams player of the week Wednesday despite a fumble that was critical in a 22-21 loss to Winnipeg. “That’s my main focus now.”

Buono thought he had what he wanted from a returner last year in Aaron Lockett, whose speed made him an outside threat.

That was until the Lions found Smart on the free-agent market and liked the fact that his size would enable them to run straight ahead.

“Ian is a running back by trade, so we know he can absorb hits,” said special teams coach Mike Benevides, whose blocking units are typical of those in the CFL that go unrecognized for preserving field position.

“You want a running back for kick returns and speed guys for punts.

“Ian is the best complement of both runners out there.”

Too much can still happen, of course, but at his current pace Smart would not only obliterate the club record for kickoff yards but would be second-best in league history for a season.

Some role player.