With good reason, senior Ito Smith was expected to be the centerpiece of the Southern Miss offense in 2017.
When he didn’t take the field in the second half Saturday night in Ruston, Louisiana, even the opposing Louisiana Tech players were openly doubting the Golden Eagles’ chances with a 17-10 deficit to begin the second half.
“La. Tech was talking about, ‘How can you win without Ito?’” USM redshirt junior running back Tez Parks said. “We won without a lot of people so it’s really a team effort and we fought together as a family.”
With Smith sidelined by what USM head coach Jay Hopson described as cramps, it was up to Parks to carry the load at running back and he answered the call with 15 carries for 77 yards.
USM rallied from down 27-16 with 1:28 remaining to pull out a wild 34-27 win in double overtime at Louisiana Tech, putting the team in a tie with North Texas in the Conference USA West at 5-2 overall and 3-1.
Smith wasn’t the only player on offense to miss time Saturday due to injuries. Right guard Ty Pollard and right tackle Jerry Harris both spent time on the sideline and freshman receiver Jaylond Adams sat out the entire game.
“I think that was a good challenge for those guys, because we have guys on this team that can make plays,” Hopson said. “We lost Ito for the second half, but I felt we moved the ball great in the second half offensively.”
Smith is expected to be fully healthy for Saturday’s 6 p.m. home game against UAB.
Learning the position
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Parks was one of the top signees in USM’s class of 2014 after also receiving offers from Florida State and Tennessee.
A high school quarterback in LaGrange, Georgia, USM signed Parks as an athlete. Florida State offered him as a safety, but he stepped on the Hattiesburg campus with hopes of playing running back.
While he had experience at the position, it hasn’t always been the easiest transition for Parks.
“One thing we’ve been pressing with him is, ‘Look man, you’ve got to learn how to play running back. You’ve got to be a little bit more of a cerebral player out there,’” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “I think he can learn by watching Ito, who is one of the most cerebral running backs I’ve been around. He just needs to understand the game.
“When kids are physically talented like he is, a lot of times you don’t learn how to be a smart football player. Things come a little easier. If he can put the two together, he can be special.”
Both Hopson and Dawson praised Parks for the way he ran with the ball at Louisiana Tech, taking more time in picking holes to run through.
“I’d say I’m a more patient runner,” Parks said. “I used to be just trying to hit it, hit it, hit it. They’ve been telling me I need to slow down in my runs. Last year, I didn’t play so I watched George (Payne) and Ito and how they maneuver through the whole. The last few weeks at practice, they’ve been telling me to be more patient. My number got called this week and I was more patient and it helped a lot.”
Parks, who has 137 yards on 28 carries, was one of a handful of players who had a low moment during one of the weirdest USM football games in recent memory.
With USM trailing 20-16 and 6:28 remaining, Parks fumbled the ball away as he was headed into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
After the turnover, Louisiana Tech raced down the field for a touchdown to take a 27-16 lead with 4:08 remaining.
“It was crazy,” Parks said. “The team, they picked me up, ‘Man, we’ve got you.’ Coach Hop said. ‘We’re all brothers’ and my brothers had my back. I went back out there and I didn’t have anything to worry about anymore.”
With Smith set to graduate after this season, Parks has a shot to take over as the No. 1 running back in 2018.
Hopson believes the speedy Parks can play football beyond his senior campaign.
“Tez is an outstanding talent,” Hopson said. “He’s one of those guys, and I don’t throw this around loosely, but he has that NFL potential. Tez knows it’s up to him to go out there and do that on Saturday. He’s big, physical, fast and he’s got a tremendous upside. He runs the ball hard. We have complete confidence in Tez.”
Who: UAB vs. Southern Miss
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: WBUV 104.9 FM