Mr. Smith stays in Columbus
Making a name for oneself as a walk-on at a Division I school can be a frustrating experience. It takes extra repetitions in practice, more time in the film room and a few lucky breaks to catch a coach's eye. But sometimes the hard work pays off and a walk-on player will be rewarded with a scholarship or even with playing time – the ultimate goal.
In the case of Antonio Smith, the 2006 season is shaping up to be multiple dreams come true.
"As a competitor, you have your goals and you always want to succeed at the goals that you set," he said. "My first goals coming in were just a chance to be out there and have a chance on the field."
Now Smith will have more than just the chance to be on the field. The Columbus-area native is penciled in as one of Ohio State's starting cornerbacks in a completely revamped secondary.
That's a far cry from the kid who enrolled as a preferred walk-on with the Buckeyes after graduating from Beechcroft (Ohio) High School in 2002. A mechanical engineering major, Smith passed over several Mid-American Conference offers to come to Columbus partly for academic reasons.
After redshirting for his freshman season, Smith played in three games the following season and made one tackle. But through a lot of hard work and dedication, the 5-9, 195-pound corner began to earn the trust of the coaching staff.
"You've definitely got to work harder," he said. "It's a grind out there each and every day and you've got to work twice as hard to get that look, to get the coaches respect. They haven't seen you very much, they didn't really recruit you. A lot of coaches don't know who you are. It's a little bit tougher in that respect."
While the scholarship players are the ones who get the first look by the coaching staff, OSU head coach Jim Tressel knows not to overlook the contributions possible by walk-on players.
"You've seen so many examples of guys who have come and have labored and labored and labored and all of a sudden in their fourth or fifth year they do see time," he said. "I can't count the number of guys who have gone from walk-on status to scholarship since I've been here. That's why they come here: they want to compete."
Most of Smith's game-time experience has come on special teams. During his sophomore season he played on the punt and kickoff coverage teams as he earned his first varsity letter, making eight tackles in 12 games.
That was followed up by a six-tackle performance last season, two of which came against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. For the second season in a row, the walk-on played in all 12 games.
But in addition to being listed as the projected starter this fall, Smith received another honor prior to the beginning of the season: he was awarded an athletic scholarship during the spring.
"I felt fulfilled," he said. "I've been working hard my 4-5 years here, just trying to be the best that I can be. To see the coaches' respect and the players' respect for me and to be able to grant me a scholarship, it felt real good."