It’s not likely that the torn hamstring that cut short Larry Smith’s 2009 season had anything to do with the fact that he seemed to take a giant step forward in his performance.
The fact that those things both took place in the same game, though, made it particularly difficult for Vanderbilt’s quarterback and his coach to accept.
“He really lit it up that first half against (Georgia) Tech,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “It was really tough to watch him go down and then not be able to finish that game.
“Then heck, he was done for the year.”
Smith had completed his first two passes (for 27 yards) and had broken his only rushing attempt for 35 yards. Of course, that run – late in the first quarter – also was the same play on which his hamstring stretched beyond its limits.
“It was real painful; it was partially torn,” Smith said. “It was frustrating being that I was starting to play a whole lot better the last two games leading up to the Georgia Tech game.
“It just gets me more excited for the season now.”
It was a brief flourish to be sure. That made it no less encouraging to anyone connected to the program, all of who were looking for any signs of hope from an offense that averaged just 1.5 touchdowns per contest.
A first-year starter as a redshirt-junior, Smith completed 46.7 percent of his passes and threw for four touchdowns with seven interceptions before he was hurt. He also rushed for 213 yards and two touchdowns.
The most telling statistic, though, was that he led the Commodores to just two victories – their only two of the season.
Without him, Vanderbilt managed 31 points against Georgia Tech – their highest point total in a loss – but scored just 32 in the final three games combined.
“We were all fighting for our lives back then, trying to get anything done at that point,” Johnson said. “He was encouraging everybody (after the injury), just the way you’d want him to be.
“We thought he had made progress all year. There were some things that slowed us down a little bit, but we thought he was making good progress.”
Similarly, his advances in the wake of the injury were neither smooth nor speedy.
Smith said he tried to run several times while he was at home on Christmas break but felt pain in the leg each time. It was not until he was back on campus and involved in the offseason conditioning program that he felt significant improvement.
Throughout spring workouts (the next practice is Tuesday, the Black and Gold scrimmage is Saturday) the leg has not been an issue.
“We were a little bit worried about lingering effects, but I don’t think there’s been any,” Johnson said. “I don’t think he’s complained a bit about his hamstring.”
The hope is that the impact of his final few plays does, in fact, carry over all the way into next fall.
“I’m just trying to make strides and execute, trying to be more of a leader and just execute better,” Smith said. “With how poorly we played last year, our main focus is just to execute and to focus on the little things.
“Hopefully I can hit the ground and keep running.”
He meant that in the figurative sense. Of course, the literal interpretation was equally appropriate.