Falcons running back Ito Smith has a clear answer for anyone who thinks he’s just Tevin Coleman 2.0.
“No, not at all” the second-year player out of Southern Mississippi said sternly.
The comparison is an easy one to make. Early in training camp, all signs point to Smith taking a similar role as Coleman this season. Before Coleman signed with the San Francisco 49ers in free agency in March, he played four seasons with the Falcons and provided valuable production within the Falcons’ two-back system.
With starter Devonta Freeman injured last season, Coleman saw even more action, posting 1,076 combined rushing and receiving yards, and nine total touchdowns. Still, even with those numbers, Smith said he’s focused on himself and not living in to the shadow of a former teammate.
“I just go out there, try my hardest and let the chips fall where they may,” Smith said.
Given his rookie season, Smith has earned the right to be confident. He played in 14 games, rushing for 315 yards and four scores on 90 carries. That’s an average of 3.5 yards per attempt.
In December, he aggravated his knee in practice, but still played in the Dec. 16 game against Arizona. Three days later, though, he underwent surgery to clean out his meniscus, ending his rookie season two games short. He said he feels fine this week. He’s participated in the first two training-camp practices, and is excited to take on expanded responsibilities.
“I’m just doing my part,” Smith said. “We know that everybody has to be able to do everything whenever the offense calls you. I’m just being prepared to do whatever coach has asked me to do.”
Running backs coach Dave Brock said Smith’s versatility is an asset he hopes to use to an even greater extent this season. Smith, who caught 27 passes for 152 yards his rookie season, is a dependable receiving option in the backfield and isn’t afraid of contact. He broke two arm tackles in the red zone to score his first NFL touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 4. From 13 yards out against the Washington Redskins four games later, he hurdled a diving defender and dragged three more with him on the way to the end zone.
He can run inside and outside the tackles and added decent yards after the catch in the open field off check-down passes from Matt Ryan. Brock said he expects Smith to be even better come September.
“I would anticipate he would be a, a much more productive player this year than he was last year because he has the experience,” Brock said. “He has all the stuff that he's done, he's been through, and he'll grow from it and learn from it.
“He had a really nice first year, but when you get a chance to step back and evaluate what you did and how you did it going into that second year, that's a nice bump.”
Smith said he wants to improve at hitting the hole full speed and his pass protection. Brock said he’s still considering how to use all of his running backs — there are five on the roster after Freeman and Smith. But as of now, he plans to allow Smith to be a big part of the scheme.
“Ito Smith is going to be himself and play his game,” Brock said. “I don't think there's going to be any type of comparison. He is going to be himself, and the battle for that third spot is gonna be really competitive. It's exciting that the group we have is as competitive as it is.”