One of the most physically gifted skill-position players in University at Albany history, Drew Smith started his career as a quarterback without a job.
Now, he’s on a mission not only to become the Great Danes’ all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, but also to lead them back to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The senior tailback from Guilderland High School will make his presence felt as a runner, receiver, blocker and possibly even as a passer today at 1 when the 24th-ranked Great Danes (3-0, 5-1) host Saint Francis (Pa.) in their annual homecoming game at University Field.
Saint Francis (2-1 Northeast Conference, 3-3 overall) has never beaten the Great Danes in 13 previous meetings. Smith wants to make sure the Red Flash leave University Field the same way they entered it.
“We are everyone’s rival game, and they all want a shot at us,” said Smith. “There is a big target on our backs. We know Saint Francis wants to win this game badly. They’ve lost 13 straight times, and we’d be a great motivational tool for them. We know they are out for blood. But this is another team that I refuse to lose to. We don’t want to be the class that allowed Saint Francis to beat us. We want to go out with another NEC championship.”
Smith currently ranks fourth all-time in rushing yardage for the Great Danes with 2,800 yards. He needs 158 yards to move into third. With four 100-yard rushing efforts this season, he is averaging 100.8 yards rushing per game.
Smith also has accounted for at least 100-plus all-purpose yards 23 times during his career, and is second behind David McCarty (4,976) on the Danes’ all-time all-purpose yardage list. Additionally, he is No. 1 in the nation in touchdowns with 12, including 11 on the ground.
All this from a player who started out as a quarterback searching for playing time.
“It’s kind of weird how everything has turned out for me here at UAlbany,” said Smith. “When I first came here, I was playing quarterback. I had to sit out a year and then hope to compete the next year for a spot on the team. But then, everything took a strange turn.”
“When he was a high school senior, Guilderland had a great year, and he was the quarterback on that great team,” said UAlbany head coach Bob Ford. “Drew was the poster boy for everything that was good in high school football back then. He was articulate with a great smile. He was extremely popular and very talented.
“But when he got here, we decided to redshirt him. We had many needs in our program back then. We had needs for a safety, tailback and a quarterback, and it was a great decision looking back that we did what we did. It all played itself out. We ended up needing more help at running back than at the other positions, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.”
Ford marvels at Smith’s versatility.
“He could be on the field for every play,” said Ford. “He could even play defense for us. He could be a safety or a linebacker. He’s even big enough to be an inside linebacker. But he’s skilled and talented enough to be a tight end or a running back. He’s our bell tower and our emotional leader. Put it this way, we’ve run eight fake punts this year, and we’ve converted seven of them, mostly because of Drew.”
“I knew I was considered an athlete first as a freshman, and when I first came here, and they moved me from QB to tailback, I was getting the ball just four or five times a game. That was cool at the time. I figured I would just wait my turn,” said Smith.
“But then, it just kind of happened for me. I started slipping through the holes that the offensive line made for me. I was always gifted physically with pretty good size and speed, and things just started to work out.”
Smith’s explosive running ability makes him a threat every time he touches the ball, and opponents are extremely wary when he lines up in the Wildcat formation.
“I can do a lot of things. I know I can catch it and throw it. I’m pretty coordinated,” Smith said. “Coach McCarthy [offensive coordinator Ryan McCarthy] has figured out all different ways for me to get the ball. After I learned about all the different coverages here at this level, it’s helped me to get closer to the all-purpose yardage record.”
Smith’s ability to make big plays is also enhanced by the players around him.
“We have so many weapons here,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for other teams to defend us when we have 10 guys in a game who can touch the ball and make something happen. They all have their own niche. I’m happy I’ve got this kind of artillery with me, because other teams just can’t focus on me.”
Two other UAlbany players to keep watch today are senior wide out Ryan Kirchner, who became the Great Danes’ all-time leading receiver with 149 catches, and sophomore quarterback Will Fiacchi, who threw for a career-high 262 yards in last week’s 31-14 win at Bryant.
Saint Francis is coached by former NFL All-Pro offensive lineman Chris Villarrial. The Red Flash are coming off a 10-3 victory over Robert Morris. Receiver Anthony Abeid caught a 50-yard TD pass and had 116 receiving yards in that game.
RPI ON ROAD
The Engineers (2-1 Liberty League, 4-1 overall) trek to Edwin Fauver Stadium in Rochester to take on the 2-1, 3-2 Yellowjackets at 1 p.m.
Both teams are still in the chase for a league title as none of the top four teams has played one another at this point in the season. Union and Hobart are both unbeaten in league play.
Rochester leads the all-time series, 39-27-4.
Senior QB Mike Hermann has been phenomenal for RPI, completing 104 of 158 passes for 1,415 yards and 15 touchdown strikes against just three interceptions. Additionally, Hermann tops the Engineers in rushing with 398 yards and six touchdowns.