Patrick Magee

Can Ito Smith surpass Damion Fletcher as the best RB in Southern Miss history?

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith is on pace to set new USM career marks in rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yardage this season.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith is on pace to set new USM career marks in rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yardage this season. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

Biloxi’s Damion Fletcher looms large in the Southern Miss record book, but he may soon have serious competition in the debate as to who is the best running back in program history.

Ito Smith, who is entering his senior campaign, is on pace to threaten some of Fletcher’s career marks.

Fletcher’s USM rushing record of 5,302 yards is certain to still be standing at the end of the 2017 season. He ranks 11th in FBS history in that category.

Smith can realistically aim for Fletcher’s USM records of rushing touchdowns (44) and all-purpose yardage (6,253).

Smith has carried the ball 572 times for 3,123 yards and 29 touchdowns during his career. His all-purpose yardage total sits at 4,629. If he replicates his 2016 numbers of 17 rushing touchdowns and 1,918 all-purpose yards, he will eclipse Fletcher in both categories.

Former USM players who can’t be ignored in this discussion are Pascagoula’s Ben Garry, current Ole Miss assistant coach Derrick Nix and former Denver Broncos standout Sammy Winder.

If Nix had stayed healthy during his career, his standing as the best running back in program history may be secure. Instead, he ranks third-all time in USM rushing yardage at 3,584 yards. Garry ranks second with 3,595 yards and Sammy Winder comes in at fourth with 3,114 yards.

At the moment, there’s no arguing Fletcher’s numbers and his right to be considered the top running back in program history. He is one of only eight players in FBS/1-A history to rush for 1,000 yards four times.

Ito and Fletch

While Fletcher (5-10, 182) and Smith (5-9, 195) are comparable in size and both wore the No. 25, they are two different running backs. One trait they do share is the ability to make defenders miss.

Fletcher was one of the best running backs in college football history within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He could pull off moves not many players are capable of and his highlight reels are still worth a look on YouTube.

Smith can also juke a defender, but he’s more lethal in the open field than Fletcher. He packs more punch for a guy his size and is significantly faster.

Fletcher, who was the No. 1 option for USM as a true freshman, was more of a grinder and proved incredibly durable for his size. It’s hard to imagine anyone breaking his USM career record of 1,009 carries.

As a freshman in 2014, Smith toiled in the backfield on a bad football team. He led the team with 136 carries for 536 yards.

As a sophomore, he broke through with 1,128 yards to lead the team while splitting carries with Jalen Richard, who is now an Oakland Raider.

As a junior, the Mobile native showed what he’s capable of as the unquestioned No. 1 option at running back. He had 265 carries, a number that Fletcher was accustomed to getting, and accounted for 1,459 rushing yards.

Receiving threat

One area that gives Smith an edge over Fletcher is his ability as a receiver. He has 100 receptions for 1,050 yards and five touchdowns in his career.

Smith is as dangerous as any running back in the nation on the screen play. He can turn a simple 5-yard toss into a long scoring play on any snap.

If Smith pulls in at least 40 receptions this year like he’s done the last two seasons, he will rank fourth in USM history in total catches. Former receiver Sherrod Gideon holds the USM career mark of 193.

Fletcher was no slouch in the passing game either, pulling in 109 receptions for 906 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s conceivable that Smith could finish first all-time at USM in rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yardage while standing second behind Fletcher in rushing yardage. Also, Smith may only finish behind Gideon, Shawn Nelson and Todd Pinkston in all-time receptions.

Without question, Smith is the most versatile running back in USM history.

With another big season, Smith can at least stand shoulder to shoulder with Fletcher in the Southern Miss record books.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

USM season opener

Who: Southern Miss vs. Kentucky

When: 3 p.m., Sept. 2

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: CBS Sports Network

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