At Vanderbilt the last two seasons, Larry Smith has been the captain running the ship that has not exactly enjoyed smooth sailing. The offense has sputtered during two consecutive 2-10 seasons, and Smith has been at the helm.
He was the starting quarterback in 20 of those games. Therefore, whether it’s fair or not, he has been the lightning rod for criticism from fans and media.
In his home state of Alabama, however, he is viewed in a different light.
“I think I have some fans back home — hopefully I do,” Smith said Thursday with a chuckle. “Winning the state championship added a little target on my back.”
Capping off a 15-0 season at Prattville High School in 2006 with a state title and MVP performance is a fond memory — and one that remains for many in Alabama. A number of those same reporters who covered Smith that season — and throughout his record-setting career — will be in attendance when he and the rest of the Vanderbilt contingent take the podium at SEC Media Days on Friday in Hoover, Ala.
“It is good to go home for a day,” Smith said.
In three seasons, Smith has never played a college game in Alabama (the Commodores will play the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8). So this is the biggest collegiate spectacle he has attended in his home state.
He’ll receive much attention — including a one-on-one interview from his hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser — as he, linebacker Chris Marve, cornerback Casey Hayward and head coach James Franklin are in the same session with the University of Alabama.
“This is strictly a business trip,” Smith said. “It will kind of be surreal, especially that we are going the same time as Alabama.”
Smith ended his high school career with a record of 39-2 and left as the school’s leader in passing yards (6,011) and touchdowns (51). As a senior, he was named the state’s Mr. Football after he passed for 2,465 yards, 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
He was actually recruited (but not offered a scholarship) by Alabama and rival Auburn but settled on the Commodores.
“Vanderbilt was too good to pass up,” Smith said. “Academics, the best conference, and [former] coach [Bobby] Johnson and his staff at the time were a really exciting group of guys. I felt like Nashville was home for me.”
Yet, it has been far from a smooth transition — at the least on the playing field. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior has thrown more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11), and his career completion percentage (47.6) has been sub-par.
“I think it has been very, very hard for people to even try to evaluate Larry based on our offensive line situation and the fact that we didn’t have a whole lot of receivers creating separation and getting open,” Franklin said.
Smith is the only quarterback on the roster with Division I experience and, therefore, figures to be the frontrunner for a position at which he has a lot of competition.
Junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers sat out last year and did not practice in the spring as he recovered from shoulder surgery. The three other possibilities are incoming freshmen — Josh Grady, Kris Kentera and Lafonte Thourogood.
“It is open competition,” Smith said. “I am just going to take it one day at a time.”
Hopefully for Smith, he’ll earn the starting job for the third straight year. And maybe less scrutiny will come with this season. Either way, Smith says he tries not to worry about areas he can’t control.
“I’m not really sure” what fans think, Smith said. “I can’t really let that get to me. I will just focus on what I can do this offseason, try to get better and try to put my team in the best possible situation to be as good as possible. I can’t really look on the outside things, really just focus on the internal things — that is our team and our camaraderie. We’re trying to come together, win more games this year and try to get a bowl victory.”