It was like he never left.
Wearing scarlet shorts with Ohio State’s logo emblazoned on them, a black Nike T-shirt featuring a scarlet swoosh and scarlet cleats, safety Erick Smith looked like he was still part of the football team.
Just as he often did the past four years, Smith took to the practice field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and worked on position-specific drills. But this time, one February morning, instead of working out with the team under the supervision of head coach Urban Meyer with the goal of winning a national championship, Smith had other means and other goals.
As he backpedaled during a drill, Smith thought about the NFL, his dream since he was a child and the goal he came to Ohio State to chase. When Smith arrived as a freshman in the fall of 2014, he thought he would put in three years, then head to the league.
“I didn’t come here to play school, man,” he later said with a smile, invoking Cardale Jones’ infamous line.
But Smith’s career did not go as planned.
Late in his sophomore season, he tore his ACL, ending his season and forcing him to sit out spring practice. The injury derailed Smith’s hopes of starting in 2016 and forced him to settle into a backup role. He had a chance to start as a senior in 2017, but began the year as a co-starter, was suspended for the fifth and sixth games, then returned as a backup in most games.
Smith ended his career having played 43 games with just two starts and had to watch from Columbus as 11 of his former teammates participated in the 2018 NFL Combine. So on that day in mid-February, he worked with former Ohio State and NFL cornerback Chimdi Chekwa to try to prove the doubters wrong.
“I ain’t want my football story to end like that,” Smith said. “If it ends after this year, then it just ends. But I’ll still be able to say, you know, I gave it my all. If my all don’t work, then I’m just not supposed to be playing.”
Smith’s football story began long before he laced up his scarlet cleats.
Prior to his four years as a Buckeye, he spent four years under the tutelage of one of the most respected head coaches in Ohio high school football, Cleveland Glenville’s Ted Ginn Sr. Not many high-school coaches have seen the kind of talent pass through their programs like Ginn, who said Smith stacked up against the very best.
“I always like to see him when he’d come downhill and knock the fire out of people,” Ginn said with a laugh. “He’s reliable. He’s going to be where he’s supposed to be and he’s going to bring that hammer. That’s for sure.”
Smith’s size for his age always stood out to Ginn, even when he was just a 14-year-old high-school freshman. Never the rah-rah type of vocal leader, the laid-back Smith did his talking with his shoulder pads.
Smith wasn’t the only future Buckeye on his high-school team. Future NFL cornerback Marshon Lattimore played with Smith and the two patrolled the defense. Ginn had a scheme he called the “go get it” package in which Smith and Lattimore, nearly always the two most athletic players on the field, would move up and each take an outside linebacker position.
Though Lattimore, who was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, and Smith have since diverged trajectories, in high school, they were viewed similarly by recruiting analysts. Smith was the 65th-best player in his class, according to 247Sports composite rankings, and Lattimore 10 spots ahead at No. 55.
Smith even made an impact earlier than Lattimore. He started on special teams as a freshman and picked off a pass in the third game of the season, then played backup safety as a sophomore. During that stretch, Lattimore dealt with debilitating hamstring injuries.
But when Smith tore his ACL in late 2015 and sat out spring practice, Lattimore finally got healthy and took advantage of an unexpected vacant starting spot. As Smith backed up safeties Malik Hooker and Damon Webb, Lattimore ran with the starting opportunity and entered the NFL draft after one season.
“Everybody just knew that we was going to make it,” Smith said. “And we both dealt with injuries when we got here. Marshon, it was his hamstring. And then my sophomore year, it was my ACL. But like, it’s kind of funny because it’s the same thing, we both just told ourselves to stay with it. I just couldn’t.”
Though Smith’s ACL injury happened over two years ago, it still hangs over his career as the ultimate what-if. The safety who relies on being ultra-aggressive said he came back scared to re-injure his knee and played more tentatively.
“Everything up to the point I got hurt was, like, going along that path of, ‘OK, yeah. You’re going to be there,’” Smith said. “Tyvis [Powell] and Vonn [Bell], we would talk a lot like, ‘Bro, when we leave, it’s going to be, like, your room’ and all that.”
Smith said he would have started alongside Hooker with Webb playing cornerback with Lattimore. He just continually told himself everything happens for a reason.
“It was just one of those points in my life where — everybody has them, I feel like — where everything is kind of flipped completely,” Smith said. “And then, like, I was literally just on the other side of things. Now I’m injured and probably going to be out the rest of the season and missed the spring and that’s going to be big.”
Despite the injury’s unfortunate timing, Smith was not out of chances with Hooker leaving for the NFL draft with Lattimore to open a starting spot in the defensive backfield.
Finally healthy, Smith felt “extremely confident” he could lock down the spot. He said defensive coordinator and safeties coach Greg Schiano told him he had one of the best camps of anyone on the team. But he admitted he was “dealing with my own issues” and was late a couple times during spring practice, which might have factored into the decision to make him a co-starter with then-sophomore Jordan Fuller.
That didn’t bother Smith, who said he was fine with splitting reps with the underclassman. But then he had his final slip-up, which cost him his final opportunity. Meyer announced Smith’s indefinite suspension for undisclosed reasons prior to the fifth game of the season against Rutgers. Smith missed the next game as well for what he said was a second failed drug test of his career for marijuana.
“I mean, it’s not even a ‘what-if,’” Smith said. “It’s a ‘if I didn’t,’ you know. If I didn’t fail the drug test, I would’ve been co-starter the whole year.”
He tried to stay upbeat, but he knew his NFL dreams had taken a major hit.
“Up to that point, even with me getting hurt and everything, this season was, like, I still could’ve obviously worked my way into being a legit draft pick instead of, you know, the position where I’m in now where I’m possibly going undrafted or I’m going to go late,” Smith said.
He finished the season with 40 tackles and three pass deflections, but 22 of the tackles and two pass deflections came in the first four games of the season. Regardless of how his final season went, Smith was unwilling to give up on his goal of becoming a professional football player, something he thought would naturally happen to someone with his skillset.
He took some time to rest after the Buckeyes’ victory in the Cotton Bowl, in which he suffered an ankle injury, before returning to work, this time without his teammates. Though no longer on the team, Smith chose to work out at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center while he pursues a Master’s Degree in sociology and is unable to head out of state to train at a facility like so many of his teammates.
Smith diversifies his workouts by spending time in the weight room with Ohio State’s strength staff multiple days a week and working out with Chekwa as often as possible. A former Buckeye defensive back who battled injuries, yet overcame them and had an NFL career, Chekwa has been through what Smith is now going through.
With Ohio State’s staff taking care of the weight training, Chekwa has focused on improving Smith’s movement. He views football as a combination of flexibility and explosiveness.
“I’m not doing anything groundbreaking or anything,” Chekwa said. “It’s really just getting a good athlete to operate within his athleticism.”
Chekwa, who co-owns a Columbus restaurant named The Pit, first met Smith when the safety stopped by for a bite to eat. The two traded numbers and Chekwa eventually asked if Smith would be interested in his help.
Just one year out of the NFL, Chekwa focused on positional drills he felt would help Smith perform on the NFL that would also translate to Thursday afternoon’s pro day.
“I feel like yes, I’m getting stronger and quicker, but like, more than anything, I want to be comfortable and smooth and clean in my football movements,” Smith said. “Like stuff I do with Chimdi, like getting out of my break, turning, breaking, everything like that because I know that’s what scouts want to see and that’s what coaches want to see — the guy who can get out of his break, be clean.”
Smith needs all the help he can get to prove to NFL teams he has what it takes to make it in the NFL, despite an up-and-down college career. He is under no delusion that teams could take him early in the draft and understands the possibility of being an undrafted free agent.
“I think I have a chance to get drafted,” Smith said. “It’s just me being realistic. Even, shoot, sixth or seventh, if not be undrafted. If I get on any team, all I need is a chance.”
He had that chance a couple times at Ohio State and never capitalized on it due to situations out of his control and his own actions. But Smith is not worried about that anymore. He’s single-minded on his final chance.
“I work hard for results, but when you don’t get the results you expect by working hard, you still feel some satisfaction because you gave it what you could give it,” Smith said. “And that’s how I would see it. From this point to pro day or the draft, I’m just going to work hard and if it don’t happen, I gave it my all. The next door that closes, another one opens.”
That next door could be a community program administrator or a marriage counselor, both careers that Smith has explored. But those jobs will always be available. Smith has just one shot at the NFL.
He has people in his corner who believe in his ability. Both Ginn and Chekwa plan to attend pro day to support Smith. Ginn called him “a pro” and Chekwa said he’s seen the top athletes at the sport and Smith has what it takes to make it.
Now, Smith doesn’t need his team’s belief. He needs a belief from an NFL team.