When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was asked if there was one particular Syracuse player he was concerned about before the teams played last weekend, there was no hesitation.
“That running back, No. 45,” Swinney said. “He is a load. Big, strong, physical back that you’re just going to have to tackle for four quarters because he just keeps coming. Very impressed with him.”
Jerome Smith, indeed, left a lasting impression in the Orange’s Atlantic Coast Conference debut. Though No. 3 Clemson strolled to a 49-14 victory at the Carrier Dome, he scored the Orange’s first touchdown on a 66-yard run off left tackle in the second quarter, leaving the speedy Clemson defenders in his wake after bulling through the line.
In the end, he finished with 125 yards on 18 carries.
“Regardless what the score is, we’re going to keep fighting,” Smith said. “Most teams down 21, you don’t keep running. We kept on going. We didn’t change.
“You never stop working.”
Those will be words to play by on Saturday, when Syracuse (2-3, 0-1 ACC) visits North Carolina State (3-2, 0-2). The Orange, still searching for their first win in their new league, will sport the backfield duo of Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who have combined for 526 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Unassuming almost to a fault, Smith is a soft-spoken leader of few words. He often relies on his own special brand of sarcasm, and his “aw-shucks” demeanor covers a fierce desire to excel on and off the field. In his first season as a starter last fall, the 6-foot, 225-pound Chester, Pa., native rushed for 1,171 yards, the fifth-highest total in school history.
After briefly contemplating leaving school in the spring for a shot at the NFL, Smith decided to return to Syracuse to hone his considerable skills. Along the way, he was named to the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation’s top running back.
“It’s easy to get complacent waiting to get to the next level,” said Smith, who has one more year of eligibility left. “It’s a really tough decision. You want to sit back and weigh all your options. The better decision was to come back. I wanted to show that I’m an all-around back, that I can run away from people.”
Smith, who has seven touchdowns this season, played in all 13 games last season, becoming just the 11th player in school history to top 1,000 yards on the ground. He put a stamp on a stellar season with a career-high 152 yards on 29 carries in Syracuse’s 38-14 Pinstripe Bowl win over West Virginia.
That finish has propelled this start, and who knows what he has left in him as the Orange try to find their way in the ACC.
“I’m just,” he said simply, “doing my job better.”