Ito Smith ‘waited my turn’ to take over starting RB duties

Credit: AJC

Ito Smith was just like anyone else Monday afternoon.

He was scrolling through some news online when a particular item caught his attention. Smith read that he was named the Falcons’ lead running back for the final two games of the regular season. Although Smith led the Falcons in snaps and touches during Sunday’s 31-27 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith hadn’t received an official notification of this new role.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris announced this move during Monday’s news conference, stating that Smith would handle the bulk of the work, with running back Todd Gurley, signed this offseason to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million, moving to third downs, pass protection and plays in the red zone. Running back Brian Hill will also continue to see reps in a complementary function.

Smith, in his third season with the franchise, said this news was a long time coming, considering how few chances he’s had to carry the load throughout a game.

“I was just thinking that I waited for my turn,” Smith said. “I kept my head up. I came to work and tried to put my best foot forward, however they needed me. I was just doing my job and was being a professional about it.”

Smith opened this season as the third back on the depth chart behind Gurley and Hill. He made his first move in the Falcons’ Week 12 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, which Gurley missed because of a knee injury. Late in the third quarter of what turned into a 43-6 blowout victory, Smith started to reel off some nice runs. The Falcons rode the hot hand, with Smith totaling 12 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“Runners, they get comfortable when they get in the flow,” running backs coach Will Harriger said. “The chance for him to play a little bit more in any way and get some touches, and then he had some success, especially at the end of that (Raiders) game. It really kind of sparked us and allowed us to finish that game the way we wanted to finish.”

Morris said Smith’s performance of late was the driving force in elevating him into a lead back role.

“He’s got big-time vision,” Morris said. “There has been an ability for him to get yards. I joked about him being the best 4-yard runner in the game, but he really finds a way to get into a hole and make something out of nothing.”

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Drafted in the fourth round in 2018 out of Southern Mississippi, Smith remained in a backup role and ran for 315 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games. His 2019 season ended prematurely after a neck injury placed him on injured reserve. Smith said the injury was serious, seeing that it cost him the final eight games of the season. He spent a lot of time rehabbing his neck, in addition to strengthening his trapezius muscles and shoulders.

This year, Smith was forced to wait his turn for an expanded role. After seeing five carries against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, Smith didn’t see more than two rushes in a game until the aforementioned Raiders game.

For Smith, it’s only a two-week stint at the top of the Falcons’ depth chart at running back. But for someone wrapping up his third NFL season with a team going through a coach and general-manager transition, Smith said these next two games will serve as an audition of sorts to prove he can handle a full load.

“All I just needed was a chance,” Smith said. “I’m trying to show whoever it’s going to be, whether it’s (Morris) or somebody new, just to give me an opportunity, and I’ll make something shake.”

Smith has always been confident in his ability as a running back. One of the better attributes he possesses, he said, is his ability to make the first defender miss. Smith said his game against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 of his rookie season proved that he could succeed in the NFL. However, as his career has unfolded, the opportunities haven’t been presented too often, whether it’s been because of the depth chart or an injury.

Although it’s happening late this season, Smith finally has the chance to show what he’s capable of as a lead runner.

“That was the hard part, for real,” Smith said. “Knowing that I do belong and I can contribute to this team but I’m sitting on the sidelines. That was the hardest part.”

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