Thomas Jones and Leon Washington were the only Jets running backs to touch the ball in 2007. Behind the two primary runners, the next leading rusher was Kellen Clemens with 111 yards. If the stats told the story, the Jets' third running back was the invisible 54th man on the roster.
Musa Smith would like to change that.
Though Smith has seen much of the first five years of his career truncated by injuries, his talent is unquestionable. A third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, he was the eighth all-time leading rusher for the University of Georgia.
He has started just one game in his career, but in that game, the Ravens' '07 season finale, he ran for a career-high 83 yards and a touchdown behind an aging offensive line that struggled to run-block that season, and against Pittsburgh's third-ranked rush defense. Not bad.
At 6'0", 232 pounds, he is considered a bruising running back; one who pounds the ball between the tackles for 3 yards before being engulfed in the proverbial cloud of smoke. Well, he is that. But in some ways, Smith's skill set belies his muscled build and reputation. The 26-year-old is capable of running outside and is more than an adequate receiver.
"He's quite elusive," left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said. "He's a big back and he's obviously got thump, but he's got some speed and a little quickness to him."
Washington didn't practice today, which meant more carries for Smith and Jesse Chatman. Smith ran several plays with the first-team offense and looked solid. He was used mostly on runs up the middle, but on a couple of carries, after clearing the defensive line, he was able to create running room with some juke moves against the linebackers. "I've got a little scatback in me," Smith joked.
His running style is comparable to that of the back he backed up for four seasons. Like former Ravens star Jamal Lewis, Smith runs upright and takes short, chopping steps when he's in traffic — looking to plow forward with his powerful legs — before lengthening his stride when he sees daylight.
"I learned a lot from Jamal," Smith said. "The biggest thing that I took from him is how hard he ran and the power he ran with. He hit the hole with his shoulders squared, running with a lot of speed and so much force. I try to work that into my game."
Though Smith considers running his best asset — as it would be for most running backs — the areas in which he excels are blocking and receiving.
During the practice, he was called on several times to pass-protect and he looked adroit, showing textbook technique: He got low, squared his shoulders and got into the blitzing defender.
"It's something that a good running back has to be able to do," said Smith, who tried to model himself after Terrell Davis and Garrison Hearst. "It's not the glamorous part of the position, but it's part of the game and can't be ignored. It's a skill that has to get honed up."
Last season, in limited duty, he caught 27 passes at 7.1 yards per reception. More impressive, he hauled in 79 percent of the balls thrown his way. The year before, he was thrown to 23 times and it resulted in 22 completions.
In Wednesday's practice, he ran a quick flat route during a two-minute drive, beating a linebacker to the corner, and Clemens dumped it off to him for about 5 yards near the sideline.
"It's just about focus," Smith said of his success as a pass-catcher. "You can't turn your head and look to run before you make the catch. You become good at catching by concentrating."
For now, he's concentrating on making the team. He doesn't yet know what his role with the Jets would be, nor is he concerned.
"They can use me however they want," he said, "whether it's to spell the starter, try to plow for a first down in short yardage, special teams or whatever. This is going to be a good team, so it would mean everything to me to be part of it."