By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Late in the fourth quarter, on first-and-10 from Southern California’s 35-yard line, the football came to Tim Smith on a reverse at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He gained 16 yards before stepping out of bounds, but Smith was clearly laboring as he ran along the UVa sideline.
“I saw six [points],” Smith recalled Friday night. “All I saw was the end zone, but I couldn’t cut at all, and I went straight out of bounds. So I knew it was time then.”
Virginia’s second game of the 2010 season was the final game for Smith, a 6-0, 185-pound wide receiver from Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake. After the USC game, he had surgery on his left ankle, and the Cavaliers lost one of their most potent weapons.
“I don’t think you can have enough guys who can do good things with the ball in their hands,” second-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Wednesday during UVa’s media day at John Paul Jones Arena.
And so Smith’s return to the practice field Friday, as a member of the first-team offense, was a welcome sight to everyone associated with Virginia’s program, including wide receivers coach Shawn Moore.
“I love having him back,” Moore said. “It’s just adding another veteran to the mix.”
The Wahoos opened training camp Friday afternoon, and No. 20 was able to participate fully in a practice for the first time in nearly a year.
“He’s rusty, and he’s got a ways to go,” Moore said. But for an offense that must replace wideout Dontrelle Inman (51 catches for 815 yards and three touchdowns in 2010), Smith’s return is great news.
As a true freshman in 2009, Smith caught 15 passes for 204 yards and two TDs. He had three receptions for 28 yards last year before he was shut down in September. By the end of spring practice this year, Smith was able to do some non-contact drills, but he’s still working back to game speed.
“I just gotta get better day by day, get into the feel of things again,” said Smith, an exceptional athlete who has high-jumped 6 feet, 8 inches.
He initially injured his ankle in the spring of 2010, Smith said. It didn’t seem serious at first, but “then it got worse over time,” he said. “Those were my ligaments and tendons, and they just wore down over time.”
Even at less than 100 percent, Smith entered last season as one of the Cavaliers’ top three wideouts, along with Inman and Kris Burd. Smith tried to play through the pain, but his run against USC made clear to him — and the UVa coaching staff — that the injury needed immediate attention.
Fortunately for Smith, his surgery came early enough in the season for him to receive a hardship waiver. He’ll compete as a redshirt sophomore this season.
“I wished I was out there [last season],” Smith said, “but everything happens for a reason.” Moreover, he noted, his injury “paved the way for other guys to get in there and play and get a chance to get their names out there.”
Passes that might have been thrown to Smith instead went to Inman and Burd, who combined for 109 catches and 1,614 receiving yards last season. In Smith’s absence, Matt Snyder emerged as the team’s No. 3 wideout, catching 30 passes for 393 yards. Snyder and Burd are fifth-year seniors this season.
“Last year I was fortunate enough to have a veteran group with Burd, Inman and Snyder,” Moore said. “Those three kids are interchangeable. But Timmy, he’s been in meetings for the last year. He knows what’s going on. So it’s good to have him back.”
During his rehabilitation, Smith said, he tried to raise his game by studying film and watching the other receivers.
Lazor said: “It’ll be interesting to see — and I have a good feeling about it — how much Tim picked up as a guy who really couldn’t practice but was around and was in the meetings and standing on the practice field. What I’m excited to see, and what I’m hoping to see, is that he doesn’t come back right where he was when he finally got hurt and could go no further, but that he’s progressed, even though he wasn’t playing. Because I think with his mixture of speed, and the way I saw him catch the football, if he’s done a great job picking things up, I think he has a chance to really take a step forward from where he was.”
Smith is again showing signs of the explosiveness that made him a game-breaking wideout and kick-returner at Oscar Smith, which went 15-0 and won the state Group AAA, Division 6 title in 2008.
“But I told him, ‘You’ve been out of football for a year, so you’ve got a ways to go,’ ” Moore said.
That’s fine with Smith. He’s just happy to be practicing again with no restrictions.
“Feeling good,” he said. “Feeling good.”
FAN-FRIENDLY: UVa’s next four practices — Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday — are open to the public. Each is scheduled to start at 3:50 p.m. The team practices on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center.
Virginia’s annual Meet the Team Day is Sunday, Aug. 14, at Scott Stadium. The gates open at 1:30 p.m., and the team is expected to arrive at 2 p.m. Admission is free.