STILLWATER — Jeremy Smith went MIA in the spring of 2011, questioning his future both at Oklahoma State and in the game of football.
“I found him at his girlfriend's house back in Tulsa,” said Cowboys receiver Tracy Moore, Smith's best friend since their playing days at Tulsa Union. “We sat and we talked for a little while.”
Talked some sense.
“It wasn't really hard to convince him to come back,” Moore said. “He just kind of felt like he wasn't ever going to play. I told him, ‘It's not worth quitting. What would you be doing without football?'”
Fast forward to today and the question offers an ironic twist: What would the Cowboys be doing without Smith?
Now a senior, Smith enters Saturday's season opener as OSU's No. 1 tailback and its only back with meaningful game experience. And as further poster-boy proof for sticking it out.
“Nothing's really given to you,” Smith said. “You always have to work for it. Be patient with everything. And believe in what the coaches are telling you, keep your faith in God strong and everything will be good.”
Smith had long avoided the topic of his near-departure, yet referenced it in describing his own talks with Clint Chelf during the quarterback's stay-or-go considerations of a year ago. And on the verge of finally having “his time” as the Cowboys' feature back, he's thankful those negative thoughts of walking away didn't linger long.
“It's just so much different from high school,” Smith said. “You come from being the guy, to somebody who has to actually work. And work and work.
“I guess it's all about maturity level. Once you get more mature, you understand how to work. And not to ever give up on anything you really want to succeed at. Even when you mess up, you've got to get right back up and keep going.
“That's the way life is, I guess.”
Gaining life lessons wasn't on his mind that spring of 2011. Kendall Hunter was leaving for the NFL, but Joseph Randle had jumped ahead of Smith on the depth chart in 2010, serving as Hunter's understudy and prepping for the starting and starring role the next fall. Five-star back Herschel Sims and four-star Desmond Roland had just been signed and were due in Stillwater that summer.
Along with the stiff competition, Smith also faced internal questions about just how bad he wanted to play, and work to play.
In the middle of spring practices, Smith went missing, before Moore and others convinced him to come back.
“Coach (Mike) Gundy pulled me in his office and talked to me,” Smith said. “I had a lot of talks with my mom and my dad.”
Moore chimed in, too, offering the words that Smith needed to hear.
“I'm definitely happy for Jeremy,” Moore said. “We're like best friends. I talked to him a lot, told him to stick with it — ‘It's going to be fine. It's going to be OK.' And I was really blowing smoke, because I really didn't know.
“So I'm happy he's got the opportunity now. I know he's excited, because he works harder than probably anybody else on the team. I don't expect it to drop off at all from what Joseph Randle has done. Jeremy's a very talented back and I expect him to do great things.”
Smith's career has been on the upswing ever since his spring of discontent.
In 2011, he ran for 646 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry as the backup to Randle. Last year, although injuries cut into his availability, he remained productive, running for 371 yards and eight TDs while again serving as Randle's apprentice.
For Gundy, there's plenty of evidence that Smith is ready for his enhanced role.
“He's played well, scored and made some good runs against really good, quality opponents in our league,” Gundy said.
For Smith, his learned patience is finally paying off.
“I've been an Oklahoma State fan my whole life,” he said. “And to be the guy, the starting running back, is just a blessing from God.
“I have to take full advantage of the situation. I thank the coaches for believing in me. And for always talking to me and keeping my mind set on the game.”