Rick Smith overcoming struggles to contribute for ASU

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- "I’m coming down with this ball no matter what."

Up until that moment in time, it had been a nightmare of a season for Rick Smith. 

The Arizona State sophomore was expected to be one of the offense's focal points, a hope strengthened by great performances throughout spring and fall camp. But it didn't work out that way.

Smith had consistent issues with drops during the season's first half, resulting in his benching for a time. He also lost a fumble against Notre Dame, a play ASU head coach Todd Graham called the "play of the game" for all the wrong reasons.

Yet through it all, the coaching staff never lost faith in the 5-foot-9 speedster. 

After the Sun Devils just took possession at their own 49-yard line, leading Washington State 28-7 in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell called Smith's number.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly's deep throw was short, and Cougar cornerback Damante Horton was all over Smith in coverage. But Smith would not be denied.

Not tonight. Not after everything he had been through.

“Coach Norvell called the play for me to go over the top," said Smith. "In my mind, I was for sure going to catch this ball and make sure I come down with it. When the ball came, it was a little bit short, so I just fought for it. It then startled juggling in the air, and I just kept my focus on it.”

The 51-yard touchdown was the longest play of Smith's young Sun Devil career. He caught two more passes on the night, each for first downs, and his 79 yards were also a career-high and led the team on the night.

It was the type of performance that ASU had expected from Smith, and it renewed hope that the Long Beach, Calif. native could become a dangerous weapon for the Sun Devils down the stretch.

Getting past his season-long struggles and back to his playmaking ways was a difficult hurdle for Smith to overcome, and he sought help both within and from those around him.

“I had to keep God in my prayers," Smith said. "I had to touch back home with my parents, and speak to some people who were close to me. They had to get to me and get to my heart, and make me come back to who I am and the player I know I can be.”

Smith's hopeful return to form would make an already red-hot Sun Devil offense that much more lethal.

Over the last three weeks, ASU has topped 50 points in each contest while averaging 559 yards of total offense. Smith credits that surge to a renewed focus on playing as one unit, rather than a collection of players, and not holding back.

“Our hard work in practice and dedication to each other," Smith said of the top key. "Being able to look to the man next to you and letting him know that you are going to bust your tail every play in a game and every play in practice. We have a tremendous goal we’re trying to reach, so we do whatever it takes, by any means necessary.”

This week, Smith and the Sun Devils will look to continue their success against the Utah Utes. On paper, this figures to be a match-up that favors ASU.

The Sun Devils come in with the nation's 17th ranked passing offense, generating nearly 325 yards per game, while Utah is near the bottom in pass defense, allowing just over 251 yards per game. The Ute defense also has had little success picking off opposing passes. Only Kentucky and Illinois have fewer than the two interceptions made by Utah.

Even with this apparent advantage, Smith is taking nothing for granted during this week of preparations. He knows that the number of playmakers on the ASU offense means that everyone needs to be ready.

"We’re just going to keep working hard, not just as wide receivers, but as an offense and a defense as a whole," said Smith. "It’s not just one player on the team. Every week, it’s different players making plays.”

Smith's big play last week came against man-to-man coverage, something he expects to see again on Saturday.

“They run man a lot, so we will have to win our one-on-ones," said Smith of Utah's defensive schemes. “We need to keep doing the same thing. Put up points, recognize coverages, and just attack them as always.”

Should Smith be able to continue his success, the chances are good that his Sun Devils can leave Salt Lake City at 7-2.