Running With Opportunity: How 3 Years Of Hard Work Paid Off For Rod Smith

FRISCO, Texas – Reporters swarmed around Rod Smith in the MetLife Stadium visitor's locker room, wanting to discuss the 25-year-old running back's dominant fourth quarter in a critical road win over the New York Giants.

Jaylon Smith stood a few feet outside the pack, filming the interview on his phone, a big smile across his face.

Jaylon's path back from a career-threatening knee injury has attracted national headlines for much of the season. Now it's Rod, Jaylon's older brother by three years, gaining attention for the role he's earned in the Cowboys' running back rotation.

This past Sunday, the fifth game of Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension, Rod delivered two late touchdowns and 160 all-purpose yards, including the first 100-yard receiving performance (113) by a Cowboys running back in more than two years.

"It's been a journey on and off the field," he said. "You've just got to know yourself and keep going out there and knowing what you're capable of and don't get sidetracked by too much. Just stay the course and when your time comes, just take advantage.

"My journey here and what I've been through to get here and to be around these guys in this locker room, it's a wonderful feeling."

His journey has included two different stints on the Cowboys' roster and a temporary position switch to fullback in 2016.

Undrafted out of Ohio State in 2015, Smith was claimed by Dallas off waivers from Seattle in the middle of his 2015 rookie season. But he didn't get a carry with the Cowboys until Week 2 at Denver this season, after the coaching staff moved him back to his natural running back position.

Smith's temporary switch to fullback was actually the team's attempt to find him a consistent role. He has always been an asset on special teams, and this offseason, he continued to improve his all-around skills as a back: receiving and pass protection, in addition to running the ball. That versatility made him active over Darren McFadden on game days until the Cowboys granted McFadden his release last month.

Smith's strides culminated with a breakout game against the Giants. His 81-yard touchdown reception with 4:08 remaining gave the Cowboys a two-score lead in an eventual 30-10 victory.

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On the previous drive, he moved across the formation to pick up a blitz, giving quarterback Dak Prescott time to deliver a 54-yard completion to Cole Beasley. Jason Witten scored one play later to break a 10-10 tie.

"I don't think any question he has improved in those areas," head coach Jason Garrett said. "But right from the outset we felt confident in his ability to do that. He's a willing protector. He's a smart guy. He's physically able to block guys. We put him on those situations and he has handled it well.

"He's a good football player. He's getting better and better every week."

Smith has rotated with fill-in starter Alfred Morris during Elliott's suspension, playing in a lot of situational areas – third down, short yardage, goal line – while also handling the third offensive series of each half.

The two backs have complemented each other well, averaging 101.8 rushing yards and scoring 5 touchdowns in Elliott's absence.

In the last two games – both Cowboys victories – Morris and Smith have averaged 131.5 rushing yards and the offense has established its identity with tough, persistent running over four quarters.

"Teams know we run the ball," Morris said. "They want to stack the box on us. So eventually it opens up everything else as long as we can be successful on the ground and keep chipping away at them. And then come the second half it just opens up."

Elliott is eligible to return to the team after this Sunday's road game against Oakland. It remains to be seen how much work Morris and Smith get once the All-Pro back rejoins the starting lineup, but both have done their best to maintain a balanced offense these last few weeks.

"In our running back room, our running backs coach (Gary Brown) teaches us to go out there and keep pounding, keep pounding," Smith said. "When your time comes, you know what you're capable of."

Smith has shown exactly that with extra opportunities.

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