Alfonso Smith thinks its time to get his name out there. He's seen the Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford footage all over ESPN this summer, and now he wants a piece of the action.
"Watching ESPN and seeing them talk about the quarterbacks for Florida and Oklahoma and Texas and (Clemson running back) C.J. Spiller and all of those guys, they're great guys, but I really don't see why my name can't be out there, either," Smith said. "I have the athletic ability, I have the speed, I have the size. All I have to do stay healthy and I'll have the opportunity to do what I want to do this year. I'm playing in the best conference in the nation. I already have that on my side. As long as I do what I'm supposed to do, and the team does what we're supposed to do and stays together, the sky's the limit."
Those who know him know that Smith is a very confident young man. But it's not a hollow confidence.
He's got a lot of superstar qualities: prototypical tailback size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), blazing speed (sub 4.3 40-yard dash), and a personality made for the limelight.
Never miss a local story.
So why isn't Smith a household name?
Seniority has played a large part. Rafael Little held down the backfield during Smith's redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, and after Little left, Coach Rich Brooks turned to senior Tony Dixon as his No. 1 back.
It wasn't easy for Smith, especially considering the way he performed when he did get opportunities: In 2006, with Little and Dixon ailing, he had 149 all-purpose yards in a pivotal win at Mississippi State, and he had a career-long 38-yard run in UK's Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina. His career yards-per-carry average is a solid 4.6, and while the coaches used to lament his lack of receiving skills, he caught 16 passes for 204 yards as a backup in 2008
"The times I've gotten put in the game I've done some good things," Smith said. "So it's been tough. When you're not out there and it's a close game, and maybe Tony or Rafael weren't having a good day, it makes you think, 'Why not put me in?' And then last year, I'd be in there, and when we got close to scoring, they'd put Tony in. There were a lot of different feelings in my head that were trying to bring me down, but I had to stay positive. I just kept the faith that one day I'd have my opportunity to shine and that I'd just have to make the most of it."
Smith has never been afraid to speak his mind to the media. If he thinks the team needs to focus on the running game more, he'll say it. If he thinks he should be getting more carries, he'll say it. That makes him very similar to Brooks, who's known for being a straight shooter. But that doesn't mean Smith hasn't ruffled Brooks' feathers at times with some of his comments.
"I cut it straight, and I think I've earned a lot of respect from the coaches because I'll tell them how I feel," Smith said. "I usually analyze something and think about it before I say it, so if I say it, it's really what's going on in my mind. But I've learned there's a business side of things, and sometimes what the coaches want may not be what I want.
"I've said some things, and (Brooks) will come up to me and put his arm around me and look at me with this little smile. It's not really a happy smile. It's more like, 'What are you saying? What are you doing?' I'll just say, 'Coach, that's how I feel.' And he'll tell me to just come to him because the media probably doesn't need to know that. I do try to watch what I say now, but I'm still going to keep it real."
Smith also has been slowed by nagging injuries, nothing very serious, but an ankle injury here, a groin pull there.
When asked what Smith had to do to hold on to the feature back role, Brooks said, "He has to perform and he has to stay healthy."
Smith got a taste of life as the man during spring ball when Derrick Locke was out recovering from knee surgery and Moncell Allen was still working his way back into shape and Brooks' good graces after missing the Liberty Bowl for academic reasons. Smith held up fine until suffering a minor foot injury in the Blue/White Spring Game. He has put on about 10-15 pounds of muscle in the off-season to help withstand the pounding that a starting SEC tailback takes, but he knows injuries are something that can't really be controlled.
"I was healthy the whole spring. They were calling my number and I was there working hard, caught a pass turned up and my foot popped a little bit," Smith said. "I was doing everything right, and I was just like, 'Why?' But I made it through that, and I can't really worry about it."
And that seniority that often kept Smith on the sidelines will likely work in his favor in 2009. Both Brooks and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips have repeatedly stated that Smith will be the starter in 2009.
"Coach Brooks has always been very loyal to the seniors, but now that should play to my advantage," Smith said. "And in fairness, they've given me opportunities. I've started six games in my career. I've had some chances to get my name out there. And I can't hate on anybody else's game. I wouldn't like it if I was a senior and there was a young guy trying to take my spot. But now I feel like it's my time to shine. I don't want to come out of the game.
"I really feel like I have the potential to play at the next level. I'm in a great situation to have a breakout year and do big things for the team. It's all on me, now. Coaches are putting it in my hands. I've just got to go out and do my part and help us win games."
In addition to making a name for himself on the field, Smith is also using other means to get his name out there. He'll take part in "Afternoons with Alfonso," a series of clips that will appear on the UK athletics Web site during fall camp featuring Smith as the centerpiece. It will have the same format as last year's "The Daily Dicky," featuring affable ex-Wildcat receiver Dicky Lyons Jr.
"I'm just a talkative guy," Smith said. "I was good friends with Dicky and played an active role in ('The Daily Dicky') as one of his co-stars, so I saw it as a good opportunity to get my personality out there and get people to know who I am even more. It's going to be hard to top Dicky, but it will be entertainment."