By Gary Lloyd
CLAY — Not even a year ago, Art Smith was close to calling it quits.
He had played some defensive back for Clay-Chalkville as a junior, racking up 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.
The defensive backfield is a crowded one for the top-ranked Cougars, and coaches didn’t think Smith quite had the hip turn to play cornerback. Instead of quitting, Clay-Chalkville head coach Jerry Hood offered him the opportunity to try running back.
He agreed. And it’s a good thing.
Through the first three or four games this season, Smith only got a few carries. Fellow senior Terelle West was the No. 1 option. Then, on Nov. 14 in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs against Muscle Shoals, West felt a pop in his knee. He tore his ACL. Some counted Clay-Chalkville out. Not Hood.
“We knew what we had with Art,” Hood said.
The offensive play calls didn’t change. In the quarterfinals at Decatur, Smith toted the ball 22 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns, all in the second half of a 38-10 win. Last week in the Class 6A semifinals against Florence, he carried the ball another 22 times for 143 yards.
“He’s done quite a good job,” Hood said. “He gave us the toughness we needed on the runs that made Florence understand that these are not your average bears.”
West has handled the time since his injury like a champ, like the leader he is. He taught Smith about vision, about following his blockers.
“Terelle made me a better back and he just taught me so much,” Smith said.
West finished his senior year with 158 carries for 1,427 yards and 16 touchdowns. Smith now has 93 carries for 787 yards (8.5 yards per carry) and nine scores.
Junior wide receiver T.J. Simmons said West has been at practice every day cheering from the sidelines. Sometimes players and coaches have to keep him off the field.
“He’s been our No. 1 fan,” Simmons said.
Smith knows that’ll be true Friday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, where No. 1 Clay-Chalkville (14-0) faces No. 3 Saraland (13-1) for the Class 6A state championship.
“He’ll be there cheering us on, hoping we get that win,” Smith said.
Contact Gary Lloyd at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.