STILLWATER — For a while there in Stillwater, the buzz surrounding Cowboys running back Jeremy Smith went something along the lines of, "We hardly knew 'ya!"
Smith's freshman season featured a dazzling — if brief — breakout, with a 160-yard rushing performance against Grambling that featured a 69-yard romp that tied for Oklahoma State's longest play from scrimmage.
Then things spiraled downward, first with Smith suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in practice just days after the Grambling game, then when the running back missed several spring practices while reportedly contemplating his future with the team.
"Ancient history," Smith said Sunday.
And thus, reintroductions are in order as Smith attempts to position himself as the backup for now and OSU's back of the future.
Kendall Hunter stands as the Cowboys' most dynamic proven player and will command the bulk of the backfield touches on offense, whether as a runner or a receiver.
Still, Hunter will need help. And he's a senior, meaning whoever produces as the understudy — Smith, sophomore Travis Miller or freshman Joseph Randle — could gain an edge in becoming the feature back for 2011.
"I'm ready for the season to start," Smith said.
As for last season, particularly his spring fling flirtation with leaving the team, that's a topic Smith would just as soon forget.
"That was just something that happened," Smith said. "That's a long time ago. I'm back, and I'm ready to play.
"Last year was last year. This is this year. That's basically what I'm really focusing on."
Not that Smith would be the first freshman to ever endure some second guessing about his future. It's been going on in athletic programs — and general student populations — for ages.
"I think he's matured," said OSU coach Mike Gundy. "That happens to a lot of young players, where they go through a period where they're not sure they want to do whatever it takes at this level. It's difficult to play at this level. It takes a lot."
Smith believes he has what it takes.
The game against Grambling offered a glimpse. It also offered something positive for Smith to reference from 2009. Officially, he's still a freshman after qualifying for a redshirt.
"It felt really good," he said. "It gave me great experience for this year."
During a stellar career at Tulsa Union, Smith rushed for more than 4,200 yards. And he closed his career in style, running for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a state championship win over Jenks.
Smith, who wore No. 36 last season, might be channeling his prep success with a switch to No. 31 this year.
But without question, the competition level is amped up, even in OSU's backfield. Like Smith, Miller comes with superb high school credentials and is seeking his chance to shine. Randle, just days into his college career, is already turning heads in practice.
While the role of the running backs in new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's system remains unclear, Smith said he's embracing the change, which comes with added opportunities in the passing game.
"This offense, I love it," Smith said. "We get to catch the ball. This is a really good offense, and I'm excited that (Holgorsen's) here."
As for Cowboys coaches and fans, they're excited Smith is here — still.
Backfield In motion
Kendall Hunter, healthy and hopping again, should play a premium role in Dana Holgorsen's new spread offense.
But there's a real competition for whatever reps remain for OSU's other running backs.
The depth chart, for now:
1. Kendall Hunter, Sr. Somehow, the Big 12 media has forgotten how good Spud can be.
2. Jeremy Smith, Fr. Great combination of speed and toughness between the tackles.
3. Travis Miller, So. May finally be ready to make some noise.
4. Joseph Randle, Fr. Rookie's speed and elusiveness might get him on the field somewhere.
5. Kyle Staley, So. Battling back from a severe knee injury won't be easy.