ATLANTA -- Orwin Smith was raised right across the border, in a state where college football is a way of life. Even so, he never bothered paying much attention to one of the sport’s greatest rivalries.
Alabama or Auburn? Smith didn’t really care.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that he’d never heard of Georgia Tech until he was in the 10th grade.
“I grew up not even watching college football,” said Smith, who is from Phenix City, Ala. “My family was not big on football. We had a lot of women in the family. Football, to me, was a backyard sport. I just happened to play it well.”
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Well, the No. 25 Yellow Jackets (3-0) are sure glad Smith figured out who they are. The junior has been one of the nation’s top all-around players in the opening month of the season, a guy who can run, catch and return kickoffs.
Smith has more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in a rout of Kansas last weekend. He figures to be a big weapon Saturday when Georgia Tech, the nation’s highest-scoring team, hosts North Carolina (3-0, 1-0 ACC) in the first big test of the year.
“We all enjoy seeing Big O out there running the ball,” teammate Embry Peeples said. “When he gets the ball, we all yell, ‘Big O!’ and throw up the ‘O’ symbol. You make the block, he’s gonna do the rest.”
Smith has emerged as the biggest weapon in head coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense, which is averaging nearly 60 points a game.
Playing the A-back position, he’s required to do a little bit of everything except pass. Smith has embraced the role, whether it’s taking a handoff or pitch, breaking deep for a surprise pass or doling out a block that helps one of his teammates get free.
Actually, that last thing might be the most satisfying part of his job.
“I love to see other guys having fun, especially if you’re the reason why someone broke out for 60 yards,” Smith said. “Everyone is getting a piece of the love. That’s what we say -- share the love.”
Smith certainly doesn’t get a lot of touches, nothing like he could expect as the lead back in a more traditional offense. He has had only 12 carries in the first three games, but ranks fifth in the ACC in rushing (270 yards) with a staggering 22.5-yard average.
Already, Smith has put up the longest run in school history (a 95-yarder against Kansas) and scored on a 77-yard play. With defenses forced to stack the line, he has also gotten downfield to haul in a 67-yard touchdown pass, as well as throws of 41 and 33 yards.
In other words, when Smith gets his hands on the ball, the average gain is 26.3 yards.
“Ideally in that position, we’re looking for high school tailbacks, guys who are about 190 pounds, who wanna run on the perimeter, who wanna catch the ball, who wanna do all the things in a slash-type deal,” Johnson said. “You’ve also got to be willing to block a little bit.”
Like most coaches, Johnson is never totally satisfied. His appraisal of Smith includes some criticism of his blocking technique, even though the back got enough of his man to help spring Peeples for a 63-yard touchdown run in a 66-24 rout of Kansas.
Smith insists he’s just as happy helping his teammates shine as hogging all the glory himself. That’s one of the things he relishes most about the triple-option.
“It’s great to see other guys having fun, having just as much success as you,” Smith said. “In high school, people are looking at you like, ‘He’s getting all the fame, but he wouldn’t be able to do it without us.’ In this offense, it takes all 11 of us. If one player does the wrong thing, that play won’t work.”
At 6-foot and 202 pounds, Smith is a little bigger than most A-backs in Johnson’s offense. That could signal a new direction for the Yellow Jackets, who want to get stronger on the perimeter without sacrificing much speed.
They’ve certainly found a worthy new prototype in Smith.
“He’s a power runner,” Peeples said. “He can make one or two guys miss if he has to. He gives ‘em that stiff arm. That’s his favorite move. It always works for him.”
Smith has noticed more players that look like him when recruits visit the Georgia Tech campus.
“Our other A-backs are petite and fast,” he said, referring to players such as Peeples (5-10, 180) and 5-9 Roddy Jones. “You can tell coach Johnson wants more power. Nowadays, you can find 6-2 running backs who do the same things as a 5-10 running back. I kind of see the transformation.”
Funny, the running back who hadn’t even heard of Georgia Tech until high school is helping put the Yellow Jackets back on the map.