Send it in, Jerome: After decision to return to school, Smith guides Syracuse into ACC with something to prove
Jenny Jakubowski | Staff Photographer
The phrase doesn’t necessarily have one meaning.
“The hay is never in the barn.”
It first spawned from a conversation between Jerome Smith and former Syracuse running back Antwon Bailey.
Smith had just won the Orange’s starting job a year after his “brother” graduated.
“Man, I’m starting,” Smith told him. “I’m excited.”
In a simple, monotonous voice, Bailey contrasted Smith’s bubbling excitement.
“The hay is never in the barn.”
It’s become a catchphrase and mantra for SU’s workmanlike running back and a rallying point for Syracuse (2-2) in its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The humble and often soft-spoken running back is the Orange’s unlikely superstar and one of the few recognizable offensive faces in an unfamiliar conference. In an age of speed and flashiness, he is a throwback.
When he first heard the phrase, Smith didn’t know what to make of it.
“When you figure it out,” said Bailey, who played for Syracuse from 2008-11, “call me back.”
In actuality, it’s something he’s embodied all along. From being a part of Pencader Charter High School’s first freshman class, to his decision to return to SU for a fourth year, there’s always been something more for Smith to prove.
In many ways, Smith is simple. His running style is straight-ahead and his personality is subdued. The flashiest thing about him is a customized T-shirt with his catchphrase that he wears on game day. He’s a down-to-earth leader with dry wit and a sheepish grin.
However, when Doug Marrone left to coach the Buffalo Bills, simple became complicated. Smith had just rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a redshirt sophomore and already submitted his name into the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
He was considering signing an agent. He saw himself playing in the NFL.
But the projections weren’t good enough. Sixth, maybe fifth rounder. He had more work to do.
“If he had the chance to go to the NFL and make millions of dollars, I’d tell him to run like hell,” SU head coach Scott Shafer said.
Improving his hands became his top priority. He spent countless hours during the offseason standing in front of a lacrosse net catching tennis balls shot from a machine.
“I sat down and I thought about it a little bit, but I wasn’t ready,” Smith said. “I knew I had things to work on.”
Running backs coach DeAndre Smith likes to tease him about his pass catching. He puts his star back toward the bottom of the pecking order in that regard, behind Clay Cleveland, Devante McFarlane and Prince-Tyson Gulley.
So when Jerome Smith made a highlight-reel, one-handed touchdown catch against Tulane on Sept. 21, he had words for his position coach.
“All of a sudden he’s like our No. 1 pass catcher,” the coach said.
Jerome Smith told him it was “swag.”
“That’s not swag,” DeAndre Smith retorted. “That was luck.”
It’s DeAndre Smith’s favorite Jerome moment and it led to a typical Jerome comment.
“I’m third right now,” Jerome Smith deadpanned. “I can sleep at night knowing I’m third.”
It’s the way he handles everything, with a hint of sarcasm paired with refreshing insight. He seems almost out of place pinned against the walls featuring photos of Syracuse legends, reporters surrounding him with recorders and cameras in his face.
He has a unique take on everything, whether it’s Drew Allen as “the sheriff,” George Morris II running “like a duck” or Greg Tobias as the best fifth-string running back in the nation. And in the rare instances that he is at a loss for words he just smiles and says, “We’ll see.”
His humble attitude to the sport stems from his days at Pencader Charter in New Castle, Del. Even in high school, the future Division I running back was splitting carries at a new high school.
In his first year, varsity wasn’t even an option. It was the school’s inaugural year and there were just 350 students — none older than a sophomore. Smith would one day be a top running back in the ACC, but in 2006 it would be the Delaware junior varsity league.
In less than three varsity seasons, though, he earned scholarship offers from Wisconsin and Syracuse.
It was at Pencader Charter that he was molded. Smith credits his head coach Rahsaan Matthews for his development on the field and Matthews credits Smith for his program’s ascension.
For Smith, the chaos of a brand-new school rivaled the chaos on the football field.
Classes were disorganized, not everyone had books and some days the bus wouldn’t even come to pick him up.
“It was a tough, tough time,” he said, “because you had to grow.”
On the football field, though, he was developing into the quiet leader that he’s become at Syracuse. He was a captain all four years at Pencader Charter despite his laid-back demeanor.
During his senior year, Smith guided the Titans deep into the state tournament before heading to Syracuse.
“We made it all the way to the state semifinals pretty much behind him and his ability,” Matthews said.
For two years with the Orange, that ability was shelved until he was finally named the starter, prompting his exchange with Bailey.
He eventually had his answer. “The work is never done.”
“Kind of sort of,” Bailey said.
On Saturday, he embarks on yet another challenge. The Orange makes its debut in the ACC, a conference that features skill players Smith believes are almost on par with those of the Southeastern Conference. His opponent will be Clemson, the No. 3 team in the nation and the best in the conference.
And when Smith takes the field, he will have Bailey’s words in mind.
When Bailey caught wind of the life that his phrase had sprouted, he realized that his mentee has become a star of his own, one with NFL aspirations.
“That’s nice youngin’,” Bailey told him.
There’s still room to improve and people to impress. So he’ll put on his customized T-shirt and go to work like he does every Saturday and grind out his 5 yards at a time.
When the day is done, he can finally rest, but on Sunday it’s right back out to the farm for another day.
Published on October 3, 2013 at 1:31 am