GAINESVILLE, FLA. -- With a name like Emmitt Smith III, he ought to be an heir to something big. The son of a Pensacola bus driver won't come into anything so mundane as money, but the University of Florida's freshman running back has the more fabulous expectations of a Herschel Walker or Tony Dorsett, already gaining over 1,000 yards midway through his freshman season.
In a record breaking seven games and just five starts, Smith, the nation's leading runner, has hurried his way to 1,011 yards, the earliest a freshman has passed 1,000. He gained 175 against Temple Saturday, and in doing so he not just equaled Dorsett and Walker, but surpassed them. Two of the greatest NCAA running backs each needed eight games to achieve 1,000.
A barely-18-year-old smack out of Escambia High School in Pensacola and on his first trip away from home, Smith seems free of undue arrogance, wearing a pair of baggy warmups with a sort of disbelieving expression on his kid face.
"I felt, if I could play a little, get accustomed to the style and the tackling, that I could do pretty good," he said recently. "But I never dreamed I'd be sitting here with this many yards."
Nor did Coach Galen Hall, who at first decided against starting him. Nor did original starter Octavius Gould, who Smith has driven from regular to reserve to transfer.
Smith came out of Escambia with nine state rushing records and was romanced by every school he cared to think of, but those guys can frequently disappear or prove less than expected in the larger milieu, and nearly always need a year to develop.
In high school he gained 8,804 yards from 1983 to 1986, an average of 179.7 a game. He is on that pace again in college, averaging 177.2 yards, and has now rushed for over 100 yards in 33 straight games, dating back to Escambia.
How and why he has been able to gain that many yards is a matter of talent, the element of surprise and some luck. To put him in proper perspective it is important to note that he has gained many of his yards against mediocre teams ranging from Tulsa to Mississippi State to Cal State Fullerton, to Temple. He is eminently mortal, with the usual fumbling problems of a freshman ("About six times in my first practices," he said).
Whether he is the real phenomenon or merely a brief apparition will be better known in coming weeks when Florida (5-2) gets into the heart of its Southeastern Conference schedule, with games remaining against Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky and Florida State.
"I may not have even a 100-yard game for the rest of the season," he said.
Still, that he has become a freshman of such influence is particularly interesting, because he is not possessed of the ultimate physical gifts, at 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, and his speed in the 40-yard dash is a middling 4.55 to 4.6, perfectly fine but not blinding. He has the proverbial quickness, and a vision that shows him holes where none appear to be.
"He sees things," Hall said. "He has uncanny vision. He sees people you don't realize are there."
"You see a lot of backs who have speed and who come in and can bench press 400," quarterback Kerwin Bell said. "But it may take them a year to adjust, because a lot of them aren't natural. Even though Emmitt doesn't have that speed and size, it's natural.
"He glides, he looks like he's in slo-mo. But all his cuts are sharp and decisive. That's what separates him; that's how he gets the yards. He's picking where he wants to go."
Florida took some time to realize that, and Smith was not necessarily expected to start this season. The Gators already had a trusted backfield, with fullback Wayne Williams and halfback Gould, a sophomore returnee who led the team in rushing with 562 yards last season.
Smith also got no promises of an opportunity when he was recruited and for a while was more interested in Auburn. The Tigers were then and still are lacking a solid backfield, and he could have started immediately. Ultimately he settled on Florida because it was favored by his parents, Emmitt II, a bus driver, and mother Mary, a receptionist, and perhaps because he was sickened by a recruiting war and the sound of his phone ringing. Weary of all those pestering him to announce where he was going, he played a small trick on the second guessers by wearing a Nebraska shirt on national signing day, and then announced for Florida.
When he would play was a nagging question, and Hall announced he would not start until he was ready. Prepared to wait patiently, Smith thought about whether he wanted to major in criminal justice or architecture, and watched from the sidelines during most of a season opening loss to Miami.
But Hall decided to try Smith in the second half against harmless Tulsa the next week. Smith ran 66 yards for a touchdown. The next week, Hall started him against Alabama, and Smith had a school record 224 yards and three touchdowns.
"They told me my role depended on me, on how well I adjusted and how quick I learned the plays and formations," he said. "I didn't think they'd let me start against a team like Alabama, but I felt strongly I could do pretty good."
Exit Gould, who said he would transfer for lack of playing time, a sensitive subject with Smith. "I don't know why he left," Smith said. "He was a great guy. He had nothing against me and I had nothing against him."
What Smith has demonstrated more than anything in his first few games, regardless of the opponent, is a versatility beyond his years.
Still, he remains childish in other ways; it was an interesting sign of his extreme youth that he was not aware he was approaching the Dorsett-Walker mark against Temple. "I didn't know about any record until I was 20 yards away," he said. "I was thinking about getting 200 yards; that's what I always think about."