Romerius Dejuante Smith enters the 2017 season as the only college football player at the FBS level who has rushed for 3,000 yards and caught passes for another 1,000 yards.
And I know what you are thinking: Romerius Who?
He is better known as Ito Smith, the senior running back at Southern Miss, who also has scored 31 USM touchdowns and surely has the most unique nickname in college football, as well.
There’s a story there.
“I had just been born (Sept. 11, 1995) and the O.J. Simpson murder
trial was on TV every day,” Smith says. “My five-year-old cousin always watched it with my grandmother and when she came to the hospital to meet me, she saw my chubby cheeks and said, ‘Hey, he looks just like Judge Ito.’”
Smith laughs and adds, “Obviously, it stuck.”
An observer remarks that “Ito” rolls off the tongue and fits into headlines easier than “Romerius Dejuante,” and he laughs again.
“That’s why I go with it,” he says.
Smith enters his senior season as fourth leading rusher in USM history with 3,123 yards. Barring injury, he likely will become the school’s second all-time rusher by the end of September passing both Derrick Nix (3,584 yards) and Ben Garry (3,595). He likely won’t catch Damion Fletcher, USM’s all-time leading rusher with 5,302 yards.
But Fletcher is the guy USM coach Jay Hopson often uses as a comparison for Smith.
“Ito makes people miss like Damion did,” Hopson says. “Like Damion, you’ll see him in a crowd of players and you’ll think he’s going down, and then all the sudden, he pops out of the crowd, and just like that, he’s gone.”
Nobody, at USM or anywhere, was more shifty than Fletcher, but Smith is probably a step or two faster in straight-ahead speed.
A better comparison might be with Oakland Raiders standout Jalen Richard. Both are short, powerfully built backs. When Smith was a sophomore and Richard a senior, both rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Smith averaged 6.6 yards per carry, Richard 5.9. And Richard went on to become the Oakland Raiders’ team Rookie of the Year last year, scoring a 75-yard touchdown on his first NFL carry and gaining over 1,300 all-purpose yards. Richard led the NFL in yards after contact. Not bad for a rookie, who was second to Smith in rushing as a senior.
“Jalen’s a great back,” Smith says. “When we were together he was fighting through injuries and I was fresh.”
That’s the kind of humility one often hears from Smith, who gives credit to teammates even when he makes so many yards on his own, making people miss.
“My goal,” he says, “is to always make the first guy miss.”
That might be more difficult this season when USM breaks in a new quarterback. For Smith’s first three college seasons, accurate Nick Mullens was the quarterback and teams could ill afford to bring safeties up to the line and stack the box against the run.
That’s precisely what opposing teams are likely to do this season and make the Golden Eagles’ unproven quarterbacks beat them.
Smith nods his head when a reporter mentions that might be the case.
“If they do that, they’ll pay,” he says. “I’ve got great guys all around me. We’ve got weapons at wide receiver and tight end and these guys (quarterbacks Kwadra Griggs, Keon Howard and Marcelo Rodriguez) can throw it over the top.”
It begins Sept. 2 when Kentucky, one of the surprise teams in the SEC last season, visits Hattiesburg. Kentucky knows all about Ito Smith. He rushed for 176 yards and caught passes for another 40 when the Golden Eagles won 44-35 at Lexington, scoring the game’s last 34 points.
Smith can’t wait. He has spent most of the fall training camp off-limits to USM tacklers. Hopson knows what Smith can do and hasn’t wanted to risk an injury.
“Besides, Ito’s such a tough guy,” Hopson says. “I mean he’s started something like 33 games. I don’t ever have to worry about Ito Smith punching the clock. He’ll be there when it counts.”