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April 10, 2009Wide receiver Keith Smith admits that he's still probably not going to exhibit blazing speed, but he feels a like he's picked up a touch more quickness this spring.
That'd be good news for the Boilermakers, who are counting on the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Smith to carry much of the receiving load offensively this season.
"There were a lot of little plays (last season) where I think if I felt then like I do now, I could have gotten out of a tackle, or made a guy miss, or got around another," Smith said, "so I definitely feel that's a huge part of my game that's improved.
"I can feel a difference and the coaches have been telling me that they can tell a difference. It's great."
Improving his speed has been priority No. 1 for Smith, a junior who is by far Purdue's leading returning receiver after hauling in 49 receptions for 486 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Although Smith compiled those workmanlike numbers in what was his first full season as a receiver - the Texas native came to Purdue as a quarterback, then moved to safety before returning to offense - a shoulder injury suffered early in '08 might have kept him from showing his full potential.
Because of the injury, now healed following off-season surgery and rehabilitation, Smith wasn't able to condition as well as he would have liked during the season, nor could he be full-go in the weight room. Thus, his weight ballooned to an unnecessary 230-plus pounds.
"I was concerned about his weight a little bit," Coach Danny Hope said. "He was injured some last year and wasn't able to train quite as religiously as he needed to and was a little bit overweight, if you will. He's 227 or so now, and he's carrying it much better than he was last year. And he understands the offense well. He's healthy and going to have a great year."
The Boilers need that to be so. Smith's 49 catches, also his career total, represent 79-percent of Purdue's cumulative returning receptions, with five of the Boilers' top six receivers from a season ago having now departed. Senior Aaron Valentin has the Boilers' second-highest total, with only 11 career receptions.
"With his playing experience last year, everything is starting to slow down for him out there," quarterback Joey Elliott said of Smith. "He's understanding. He'll come back to the huddle and say, 'Hey, they're playing this coverage on me.' He gets it, especially coming from being a converted quarterback, he understands coverages and things very well."
That understanding wasn't the case a season ago. While redshirting in 2007, Smith moved from safety to scout-team receiver during Purdue's preparations for the Motor City Bowl, impressing the Boilermaker coaches with his quick adaptation to the position.
But he was still a novice in '08. After 12 games last season, however, in which he split time as Purdue's primary slot receiver with Desmond Tardy, he feels much more knowledgeable.
"By far," Smith said. "Knowing what I need to do to get off this type of press, this type of coverage. Having that experience now, instead of having to wait to get to the line to think about it, I can think about it as I'm getting to the line: What I'm going to do and get on with it."
Smith, who's been working in the slot and outside this spring, says he's also trying to take on more of a leadership role, with such youth in the receiving corps. A charismatic-type, Smith's personality seems to be a good match for that responsibility, even if this is only his second year at receiver.
"It's a great honor," Smith said. "I'm the leader of the receiver group and everybody looks up to me and hopefully I will lead them to being the No. 1 receiving group in the Big Ten.
"I've always told them they can come to me whenever. I'll make time to work with them. A lot of the young guys have come to me and I've worked with them individually, even on the weekends. I definitely feel with me being the veteran and everyone knowing what experience I have, it will help the group."
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