Mike Smith took a fair amount of taunting from his bunkmates at the Naval Academy, but he laughed it off because that is his way and because it seemed silly. Wouldn't it be funny, they kidded him, if Navy brought back Napoleon McCallum for a fifth year and you wouldn't get to play, and what good would you be then?
This went on for some time before one of his roommates strolled through the door one day and asked, "Seen the paper? Nap's coming back."
"Get out of here," Smith said, laughing.
As it happened, McCallum did get the approval of the Pentagon and the protocol-conscious Academy for an unprecedented fifth football season. The result is that Smith is again in the long shadow of Navy's all-America and Heisman Trophy candidate, who tends to dwarf Smith even beyond his 5-8 stature. It was disheartening for Smith, who rushed for 362 yards and three touchdowns last year while splitting tailback duty with senior Rich Clouse, even if getting McCallum back was the biggest thing to happen to the Midshipmen since they went undefeated against Army six straight years (1978-1983).
"It's hard to say I wasn't disappointed . . . initially," Smith said. "But then I thought about what it means to have him back for another year. Knowing you have an all-America and Heisman Trophy candidate is great just for morale. Any personal disappointment was eventually outweighed."
Smith, a junior, by now is used to going unnoticed next to McCallum. When you set them down side by side, Navy's tailback tandem resembles something out of a cartoon. McCallum, who is 6-2, is a striding runner, Smith a nimble-footed type.
Smith's size, however, is perhaps most responsible for his presence at Navy. The son of a steelworker and the youngest of seven children, Smith was recruited briefly by Temple and West Virginia, but mostly by smaller schools in Ohio out of Ironton High School. He had a slow, 4.8 time in the 40-yard dash and was still at that awkward stage in his growth, weighing about 165.
"I was a small kid in high school," he said. "Not that I'm big now. My speed wasn't impressive. A lot of Ohio Valley schools were interested. It almost got to that point."
Navy's interest in him became evident the day Ironton Coach Bob Lutz dragged him out of a class and asked him if he ever considered playing for a service academy. Smith, who has had this thing for naval aviators ever since he was a child and hung on the words of his two older brothers, one a staff sergeant in the Marines and the other an enlisted man in the Navy, was a pushover.
"Something snapped," he said. "I tore up the letter from Temple and opened up a Navy catalogue,"
Smith languished behind McCallum until the star broke his ankle in the second game last season. Smith became a prospective starter in last year's 38-21 upset of South Carolina, Navy's second to last game of the season. Clouse fumbled early in the game, and Smith was sent in. He rarely left again, rushing for 96 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.
In light of McCallum's return, Smith worked over the summer to gain weight. He added about 10 pounds to get up to 185, which seems to have been an improvement without losing any speed. At Navy's scrimmage last weekend, he rushed for 51 yards on 10 carries and caught a pass before leaving with a minor finger injury.
"Last year and Napoleon's unfortunate situation was a bonus for Mike," said running backs coach Bill Haushalter. "The difficult part for him is this year, when he might have begun to think of himself as the starter. He accepts his role, but it threw a wrench in his plans."
Smith's presence, however limited, gives Navy a little variety. He is not fast, although he has improved his time in the 40 to 4.6 since high school. His real strength is a quicknesss and a singular, scatback sort of style. His main talent is for finding holes. His size also allows him to hide occasionally, while the play develops.
"He has a way of running where the other color isn't," Haushalter said. "He can hide behind the big linemen. There'll be a big pileup, and then Mike comes squirting out."
"I wouldn't say that," Smith said. "I'd say I'm trying not to get hit."
Even if Smith sees only limited playing time, his presence will enable the Midshipmen to rest McCallum more. McCallum carried the ball 331 times his junior year, an average of about 30 times a game, in addition to catching 24 passes.
"Anybody gets tired," McCallum said. "Now I'm confident that when I go out there will be a good back in there. I'm long and lanky, and Mike's got a style of his own. It gives us another dimension."
It is doubtful, however, how much playing time Smith will see with McCallum looking for numbers comparable to his junior year, when he rushed for a school record 1,587 yards.
"My hope is just to play whenever Napoleon doesn't," he said. "But he's a great back, and you know he's going to run like crazy."