Road work scheduled
If there happens to be some traffic congestion around the Lions' Allen Park practice facility come July's training camp, don't blame the Michigan Department of Transportation.
A more likely scenario is the Lions' new fullback, noted roadgrader Terrelle Smith, who has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in eight of his 10 seasons, pushing through a highway project of his own, laying down a new segment of M-44.
The offseason free agent acquisition from the NFC champion Cardinals spent two years in the desert clearing the way for running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower. Early last season, Smith told the rookie Hightower that the road to success was on Highway-45 (Smith's jersey number with the Cardinals), but steadily saw his own playing time decrease, as the pass-happy Cardinals realized that they didn't need a stellar rushing game — Arizona was last in the league in rushing yards per game in the regular season — to make a Super Bowl run, and more often went with three- and four-wide receiver sets.
"I never really slacked off ... they were just going away from the traditional fullback," said Smith, who knew there would be a better chance for him to play in Detroit, especially with last year's midseason pickup, Moran Norris, signing with San Francisco, setting off the usual carousel of movement among the fullback fraternity. "If it's not Lorenzo Neal, then it's Moran, and if it's not Moran, than it's me. That's just kind of how it works."
How Smith works isn't as easy to quantify.
Smith had half (29) of his 58 career carries in his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints — after following the man who is now his position coach, Sam Gash, at the position — and hasn't had more than 18 touches in a single season since then. All three of his career touchdowns came on receptions, none of them since he was with the Cleveland Browns in 2005.
"I'm a role player, and my role is to lead the way, and let my back run through the hole. It is not a statistics position. Nowadays, they want to use those 'tweener backs, those big running backs who can put their hand on the ground and run out and catch passes," Smith told the Arizona Republic last year. "To a point, it's kind of disheartening to a guy who is made and built for this (job), but in the end, if you can't block, you can't play the position. I don't ever cry, 'Give me the ball. Give me the ball.' It's not what I do."
What he does is block, which is perfect for the Lions' new preference for power offense. Don't get him wrong: He can catch, too. He just doesn't care if he doesn't get touches.
"I don't want 'em. It brings too many issues, too many problems, this and that," he said at the recently-completed minicamp. "If you're gonna throw me the ball, I'll catch it. If not, I'm gonna block somebody."
One of the people he may be blocking — at least for now — is the other fullback on the roster, Jerome Felton. Last year's second pick in the fifth round, Felton was primarily a featured running back at Division I-AA Furman University. His struggles to block as a rookie were part of the reason that then-interim general manager Martin Mayhew made one of his first moves the signing of Norris to solidify the lead-blocking role.
"I'd seen film on him, but not enough, because he was injured. Moran was hungry, and that's one of the things we talk about, is being hungry," Smith said of trying to help Felton through the tough transition from runner to blocker. "That, and you've just got to take this one play at a time. I've been through this 10 times."
Smith has also been through the wringer of constant relocation — from New Orleans to Cleveland to Arizona and now to Detroit — as well as the stress of coaching upheaval, part of the reason he's happy to be in on the ground floor with first-year head coach Jim Schwartz's staff.
"I don't want to come into a situation where I'm a piece of the puzzle, then the head coach goes. I don't like that. I've been in that situation in Cleveland. Like I tell everyone in Detroit ... I'm part of the solution, and not the problem," said Smith, who laid low throughout the offseason schedule, but plans to turn it up when camp opens on July 31. "Minicamp is like PE. You gotta learn the plays, work on stuff. ... I like the fact that nobody knows about me, nobody's talking to me. We get into training camp, people are going to think I'm stone crazy."