Kentucky State’s John L. Smith creatively solving problems in first season as coach

John L. Smith was introduced as the new head football coach at Kentucky State last December.
John L. Smith was introduced as the new head football coach at Kentucky State last December.

Kentucky State University’s hiring last winter of former Louisville, Michigan State and Arkansas football coach John L. Smith came with an understanding that the program was going to be taking steps forward in the future.

While Smith’s first season will not be without growing pains, it’s not out of the question to expect a better product on the field already in 2016.

The Thorobreds finished 3-7 last season and 2-3 in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, but what remained of that roster left Smith, 67, with some building blocks.

Smith’s hiring in December made for a short recruiting window, though, so the Thorobreds will initially lack depth.

“I’m a big believer that you are only as good as your seniors,” said Smith, who spent the past three years coaching at Fort Lewis College, an NCAA Division II school in Durango, Colo. “So if you have a good senior class and those guys take charge of the team and lead the team, then you’re going to be a decent football team.”

Smith said offensive lineman Michael Moaga and linebacker Trevon Spencer were among leaders in spring practice, heading a group of 11 seniors.

The team developed a sense of accountability throughout their workouts in the spring.

“He really took charge this spring,” Smith said about Spencer. “He’s really what you are looking for as far as a senior leader. He leads through action, and he’s verbal.”

Smith said Moaga was the team’s best offensive lineman coming out of spring and assumed a larger role than was expected of him. That larger role included the possibility of playing as a defensive end because of how well he runs.

Moaga is just one of the players that Smith sees playing multiple roles in an attempt to alleviate depth problems.

Last season’s starting quarterback, Ora Johnson, might or might not perform at multiple positions but brought versatility to the one he played in 2015. Johnson, a junior from Bryan Station, rushed for 381 yards and passed for 892 last season.

“After you finish spring ball, you come out of there and say this kid is a legit athlete,” Smith said of Johnson. “And if he’s not our starting quarterback, he will be starting somewhere else.”

Smith’s mind has also run wild with possibly implementing a two-quarterback system, or even having Johnson play on both sides of the ball as a wide receiver/defensive back combo.

Another player who gives the team options is Reginal Harris. The senior running back racked up 878 total yards last season and proved he can be a weapon either lining up in the backfield or in the slot.

“That’s coaching,” Smith said about all the personnel decisions. “That’s our job to get it sorted out and get the best 11, the best 22, on the field.”

Those choices will decide whether the team achieves its lofty goals. Smith wants to send the senior class out as winners, and challenges his team to shoot ever higher.

“I tell this football team, ‘You can’t be be afraid to express that goal,’” Smith said. “If you don’t talk about it, it’ll never happen. So we better start talking about seniors as winners, winning the league, and winning a national title. And we’ll work at it in that order.”

Anthony Crawford: 859-231-1627, @a_craw_

Season opener

Kentucky State at Charleston Southern

When: Sept. 3, 11:45 a.m.