RALEIGH, N.C. — For a moment, Florida State sophomore receiver Rodney Smith figured he goofed.
With the Seminoles trailing Boston College 6-0 late in the opening quarter and facing third and 5, he ran a slant route and created some space from cornerback Donnie Fletcher as the pass from Christian Ponder came toward him.
Smith admitted he "jumped a little too high" for a ball that was sailing but still "catchable." And as it ricocheted off his hands, he absorbed a hit to his legs from Fletcher and to his ribs from linebacker Luke Kuechly, and crumpled to the ground.
"I was like, 'D - - -I didn't catch the ball,' " Smith said.
Instead of pounding the sod in frustration or rubbing his side, he stayed with the play and saw linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis tipping the ball in midair as if he were a volleyball setter. With his eyes never leaving the fluttering ball, Smith got to his feet and lunged for it. "I wanted to go get it and make a play," he said.
He did just that, gaining 7 yards with a highlight-reel catch (go to youtube.com and search rodney smith ricochet) to keep the drive alive; one that ended with a touchdown in 24-19 win.
"He's a great weapon," Ponder said. "He's got a lot of ability, and he just needs that experience and that confidence and he's starting to get there."
Make no mistake: Smith's emergence, along with that of fellow sophomore Willie Haulstead, looms large as the No. 16-ranked Seminoles (6-1, 4-0 ACC) look to seize control of the Atlantic Division in tonight's game at North Carolina State (5-2, 2-1).
The Seminoles' passing game hasn't gotten off the ground, in part, the result of a productive running game. That has allowed FSU to control the clock and field position, both of which have helped a young defense. But if, or when, teams commit more defenders to stop the run, then FSU's receivers will face more single coverage. And Smith is one difficult matchup at 6 feet 6 and 222 pounds.
"You left one thing out — he's fast," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said of Smith.
Smith had six catches for 49 yards, both career highs, against the Eagles on Oct. 16, increasing his season totals to 14 receptions (fourth on the team) for 146 yards.
"He is a very good player, and he's doing some good things," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We've just got to get more consistency out of him in certain situations. … He's growing every game and every week and day by day, you see him getting better."
Everyone saw that a week before the BC game when the Seminoles went to Miami. After the Hurricanes had scored 10 consecutive points to cut FSU's lead to 31-17, Smith came up with his lone catch, an 18-yarder on a third and 10, for his first collegiate touchdown.
"It was huge," Ponder said of the play. "They were kind of climbing back in the game and getting momentum on their side, and we ran a little slant and up, and they were bringing a house blitz so (they had) one-on-one coverage outside, and Rodney's 6-6 (against 6-foot sophomore corner Brandon McGee), and I'll take that height advantage all day. I just threw it up to him, and he made a great catch, a great adjustment on the ball."
"It was a big confidence booster," added Smith, 20. "I hadn't had a touchdown in a while, and that was getting frustrating."
The former Miami Archbishop Carroll standout had 10 touchdowns as a senior and although he played in seven games as a true freshman last year, he appeared mostly on special teams and came up with more tackles (four) than receptions (one for 7 yards) let alone touchdowns.
"I just had to be patient," he said.
And work until he was as comfortable on the field as he was during his high school days.
"You're starting to see that he's developing that confidence in himself that he can play ball," said fourth-year junior Bert Reed, who leads the team with 34 catches. "He's got all the talent in the world, but I can tell you this, he's nowhere near where he's going to be when he leaves this place."
Smith has provided a preview of coming receptions.
"I'm just trying to show the coaches and show Ponder that I can be a go-to receiver," he said. "I'm going to keep working and putting myself in the position to make plays for the team and help the team out. Whatever it takes. If I've got to block, I'm going to block. If they throw me the pass, I'm going to make the play."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347. Follow his coverage at seminoles.tampabay.com.