After working four years for an opportunity that never came, Trey Smith felt he needed a change,
This spring, Wyoming — particularly the Cowboys’ backfield — became the beneficiary of that decision.
Smith made the move from Louisville to Wyoming in May as a graduate transfer. With one year of eligibility left, the fifth-year senior is stepping into a far more certain situation than the one he’s been used to in recent years. Sophomore Xazavian Valladay finds himself at the top of the depth chart at running back with the departures of Nico Evans (graduation) and Evans’ primary backup last season, Jevon Bigelow (transfer).
Redshirt freshman Reow Jackson also left the team in June, leaving Smith as Wyoming’s only other scholarship running back until true freshmen Dawaiian McNeely, Alphonzo Andrews Jr. and Titus Swen showed up this summer. But Smith joins Valladay as the only scholarship backs still on the roster that have carries at the college level, which immediately threw him into the mix.
“The verdict is out on Trey, but we brought him in here for a reason,” Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “He’s played at a high level.”
Valladay maintained his spot as the No. 1 running back entering fall camp, and Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said he’s only strengthened his hold on that position. It’s an edge Valladay has primarily because of his familiarity with the Cowboys’ offense, something Smith still has a ways to go to get caught up on given he’s only been repping it for a few weeks.
LARAMIE — The offseason is officially over for Wyoming as the Cowboys open preseason camp Friday morning in preparation for their season opene…
Even if Valladay is the first running back to take the field with the offense in Wyoming’s Aug. 31 opener against Missouri, Smith is going to play. He’s next up in what Bohl is hoping becomes a permanent rotation between the two, which puts Smith in line for the most expanded role of his career when it comes to the number of carries he might get.
Smith doesn’t want to waste it.
“Just basically trying to give this program whatever I can and all that I have left,” Smith said. “That’s really how I approach every year in college because I just want to get the most out of the program and let the program get the most out of me.”
It was the kind of role Smith envisioned having at some point at Louisville, the Power Five program he signed with coming out of Madison Central (Mississippi) High in 2015. The son of former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro receiver Jimmy Smith, the younger Smith had a connection to the Cardinals with then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino and his offensive coordinator, Garrick McGee, having been on the Jaguars’ coaching staff for a few years when Smith starred for the team from 1995-2005.
In that same recruiting class, Petrino also signed dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, who immediately stepped in as the Cardinals’ starter before morphing into the most electric player in college football from 2015-17. Jackson’s feet were even more electric than his arm as he ran 260 times for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns on his way to becoming the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
Jackson, now the Baltimore Ravens’ starting quarterback, racked up 655 carries during his time at Louisville and finished his career with 4,132 rushing yards and 50 rushing touchdowns. Smith was largely a spectator to Jackson’s heroics, and considering it was difficult even for the running backs ahead of him on the depth chart to get carries, he dabbled at fullback and linebacker. Smith combined for just 32 carries his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons.
It looked as if Smith might finally get his shot to be a bigger part of the Cardinals’ offense last season after two of the running backs ahead of him, Reggie Bonnafon and Malik Williams, exhausted their eligibility. Smith even reportedly led the competition to be the starting running back at one point, but even the most extensive playing time of his career to that point netted him just 50 carries for 263 yards — both third-most on the team behind quarterback Malik Cunningham and running back Hassan Hall, a true freshman.
Those carries came as Louisville struggled mightily to get much going in the post-Jackson era. The Cardinals lost seven straight games at one point, and Petrino was fired 10 games into a 2-10 season. Once it was over, there was little incentive for Smith to stay.
“There were so many other things going on outside of football, and we never really just bought in to what we were trying to do,” Smith said. “It is what it is. It’s last season, so I’m finished with that.”
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Smith announced his decision to transfer in December. And with time running out on his collegiate career, he sought a situation that lent itself to him being able to make an immediate impact.
Wyoming running backs coach Gordie Haug sent Smith a direct message on Twitter to gauge his interest, and the Cowboys’ physical pro-style offense combined with their limited numbers in the backfield was appealing. He signed with the Cowboys in April and moved to Laramie in May.
“I just saw an opportunity where I could get more carries than I’ve ever gotten at Louisville because that’s basically a passing offense,” Smith said. “And when we didn’t pass, it was Lamar running for 80 (yards). It was kind of hard to get carries in that offense.”
Yet Smith reiterated that playing time wasn’t the only reason he chose Wyoming. Shortly after signing with the Cowboys, Smith told the Star-Tribune that he liked the way the program, which has put together three straight bowl-eligible seasons, was trending. With talent still on the roster combined with state-of-the-art facilities, Smith also said he wanted to help the program take another step he believes Wyoming is capable of.
Earlier this month, Smith said there’s also a sense of camaraderie and accountability among the players that he believes can help them get there.
“The vibe on the team is amazing. It’s something I’ve really never been a part of because we’re so close already,” Smith said. “We’re not afraid to call each other out if we don’t do something right. That’s what I respect about this team. They won’t take no for an answer, so I think that’s going to take us a long way. That’s what they’ve shown me, and I’ve bought into that.”
But exactly how will Smith help on the field? He nor anyone else is putting limits on that.
Pushing 220 pounds, Smith is the heaviest running back on the roster, which seems like an ideal complement to Valladay’s faster, shiftier running style at 195 pounds. Louisville often used Smith in short-yardage situations, but Smith warned against putting a label on his game.
“I think I can bring a balanced style,” Smith said. “I’ve been put in positions in Louisville where it was fourth-and-3 or fourth-and-2 numerous times and I got it. And also I feel like I can explode and hit it for 60 or 70 yards.”
Smith averaged 5.3 yards a carry and also caught 10 passes for 74 yards a season ago. And based on what Smith has shown during camp, he’s dispelling any preconceived notions.
“I thought he could bring a bigger, powerful runner and more of a strong side instead of an elusive runner, but I think Trey is showing a little bit of both,” Valladay said.
Said Bohl, “He’s played a lot, and he’s been able to make some good runs. He’s a good pass protector, and he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. All those traits are what we’re looking for in a tailback.”
Entering his final season of college football with just 82 career carries to his name, Smith said he doesn’t regret his decision to go to Louisville. “It was a special connection I felt there,” Smith said, and it gave him four years worth of experience that he’s hoping to pass on to his new teammates.
“Those were a great four years of my life, and I appreciate everything Coach Petrino has done and all the people I’ve left. But it’s just a great feeling being here. I’m just overwhelmed with my teammates, the love, just the city and being a part of Wyoming football. It’s something I can really be proud of and come back to.”
Now all the focus is on using his final shot to help keep Wyoming’s momentum going this season before he leaves.
“I’m just ready to win,” Smith said.