Smith saving a fumbled punt inbounds was the jump-start the Huskies needed
BOULDER, Colo. — Against spectacularly inept Colorado, the Huskies led only 7-0 and in the halftime locker room, where it almost felt as if they were losing, coach Steve Sarkisian shared his, um, frustrations with his players.
Washington was playing down to Colorado’s level, and Sarkisian asked his players for more energy. He demanded that somebody become a playmaker, light a spark early in the second half and shake off the lethargy.
Kevin Smith was listening.
After a Husky three-and-out to start the second half, Travis Coons’ punt hit the turf, bounced toward the sidelines, caromed off Colorado’s Nelson Spruce’s shoulder pad and headed out of bounds.
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Smith, a former Pioneer League MVP as a hoop star who didn’t start playing football until his junior year at Compton’s Centennial High School, sprinted toward the ball, grabbed it before it hit out of bounds and while he was in the air, flipped it back into play, hoping it would find a fellow Husky.
As Smith tumbled out of bounds, toward the front row of Buffalo fans, teammate Will Shamburger corralled the loose ball at the Colorado 35.
“That was an amazing play by him,” Shamburger said. “He came out of nowhere. I thought it was a big play in the game.”
Smith lit the spark.
“I cannot wait to see the highlight of that play,” Sarkisian said after the 38-3 victory Saturday. “That’s one for the ages.”
It was a once-in-a-season hustle play that Washington practices in training camp, a play you see in basketball every night, but rarely is there a time or a place for it to work in football.
“That was a play that gave us a lot of energy. I was looking at the ball and the sideline at the same time and saw there was enough room to go get it,” Smith said, standing outside the Husky locker room before he boarded the team bus. “I didn’t see Will at all. I just threw it back in. I’ve done it in basketball plenty of times.”
Even senior Justin Glenn admitted he gave up on the play.
“The play’s never over until the whistle’s blown,” Smith said. “It’s a play that we practice, mostly at the beginning of the year, so that everybody’s always got it in their heads.”
Smith, a junior, has been one of Washington’s hard-luck stories. He injured his right knee in practice before the Alamo Bowl last year and had surgery in the winter.
After recovering from that surgery, Smith was supposed to be one of Sarkisian’s starting wide receivers this year. But early in the Louisiana State game, Smith reinjured his knee and, although he’s missed only one game, he now plays with a speed-restricting brace.
But when a coach is building a program and changing a culture, he needs players like Smith; players who can overcome repeated adversity and are willing to do whatever is asked, players who don’t allow their disappointments to infect their work habits.
Smith’s snaps have been limited, but he hasn’t gotten down on himself and hasn’t quit on his dreams. He’s become Sarkisian’s do-anything player. No job is too small or too tough or too dirty.
“Wherever the coach wants me to go, whatever he wants me to do, that’s what I’m going to try to do,” Smith said. “Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m going to do. And whatever comes next, I’ll be ready.”
Against Colorado, Sarkisian had Smith playing up on kickoffs as well as covering punts and kicks. At times this season, Smith has returned punts.
“It just shows that he is a team guy,” Sarkisian said. “When you get your opportunities, the goal is to go execute your job. And Kevin has done that for us. I think he exemplifies a lot of what this team is about.
“I am hopeful with him. It is obviously difficult to play wide receiver when you are in a knee brace, so hopefully he can continue to get healthy and regain the speed that he possessed before that. I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that to make that play.”
Smith said he’s ready to play more snaps, ready to be in the rotation at wide receiver. He’s not demanding more time, he’s just sayin’:
“I feel great. I just have to be patient. This hasn’t been frustrating at all. When I hurt my knee, it was frustrating, sitting out all that time and getting my strength back. But I just kept coming to practice with a lot of energy and helping my teammates get better.
“I did a lot of mental reps in my head. That’s how I overcame it. I stayed positive most of the time and real patient. Those are the keys about it.”
Kevin Smith gave breath to a game that had all the energy of a Friday walk-through. He turned a lazy third-quarter punt into a game-changer. He made the kind of play that can define a program that continues to mature.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org