Ito Smith: ‘Last year was was like the hardest year of my life’

Giving up four inches and 33 pounds, Falcons running back Ito Smith lost a battle with Rams linebacker Cory Littleton and was knocked out of the 2019 season.

Smith, who’s 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, was trying to block Littleton, who’s 6-3 and 228 pounds. He went up high in pass protection and didn’t win that battle. Former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn (5-9, 180) used to go low and cut-block much bigger linebackers.

Smith ended up with a neck injury and concussion. He was placed on injured reserve and missed the final 11 games of the season.

“Last year was like the hardest year of my life,” Smith said Tuesday. “I never had a year where I had to miss football. Being away from teammates and watching them every Sunday was very tough on me.”

After the Falcons ended up 7-9, Smith started working on his return.

“I was here training, and then COVID-19 hit and they shut everything down,” Smith said. “I had to go to Houston. So, I just worked my butt off and tried to get in the best shape of my life. I came back here strong and got my weight up a little bit. So, I’m feeling good about being back out there with my teammates.”

Smith, who played at Southern Mississippi, was drafted in the fourth round (126th overall) of the 2018 NFL draft.

He played in 14 games as a rookie in 2018. He rushed 90 times for 315 yards and four touchdowns. He caught 27 of 32 targeted passes for 152 yards and no touchdowns.

In 2019, as the primary backup to Devonta Freeman, he had 22 rushes for 106 yards and one touchdown. He caught 11 of 14 targets for 87 yards before he was injured.

So why didn’t the Falcons have Smith cut-blocking in pass protection?

“The only time you can’t go low is when you are engaged with an offensive lineman,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s when they would call a high-low on that one. But for certain that’s part of it, and the cuts are a part of it.”

It was a long rehab for Smith, as some players don’t make it back from neck and head-trauma injuries.

“I would say the rehab part for him, the first one was letting (the concussion) calm down and then from then on it was strengthening the neck and the (trapezoid muscles),” Quinn said. “He really followed that plan closely. So, he’s stronger physically, and he’s been putting as much work as he can on the blocking technique, the punching. He’s put good work in.”

The Falcons didn’t re-sign Freeman and added Todd Gurley to the backfield via free agency.

Smith isn’t sure how the rotation behind Gurley will shake out.

“I’m pretty sure that they’ll have all of us rolling,” Smith said. “But I don’t know how it’s going to go. That’s up to the coaches.”

With Smith out last season, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison earned roles in the offense. Hill improved his pass-catching ability and Ollison had some success as a short-yardage back.

“We really have a lot of trust in all four of those players,” Quinn said. “You don’t get to use them all in every game in the same ways. I think over the course of the season there will be some guys who will take some leads in different weeks. We certainly are comfortable with the group that we have.”

Even Smith has noticed the improvement in Hill’s pass-catching ability.

“That’s going to help out this team,” Smith said. “Help out the pass game. It’s going to help out the whole offense. B. Hill has gotten better with his hands. He runs routes better. It’s like night and day, he looks very good.”

Smith has been working on his pass blocking.

“That’s what I got taken out on last year,” Smith said. “Just working on my techniques and I would say my route running.”

Smith is hoping to get in the open field running the ball like he did as a rookie.

“They know I can go anywhere. You never where I’m going to go,” Smith said. “The play can be designed to go left and I might end up the right. So, it was funny, because (left tackle) Jake (Matthews) a couple of weeks ago, was like, ‘Hey, just make me look good.’”

With the start to the most bizarre NFL season less than 10 days away, Smith is elated that battled back from the injuries.

“Just knowing that I could do it, you know,” Smith said. “Just believing in myself. I made it this far for a reason. So, I know I’ve got to have a purpose. Just trying to stay level-headed as much as I could.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons running back Ito Smith discusses how tough it was to miss half of last season and how he hopes to reclaim his spot in the backfield rotation.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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