Sutton Smith's highlight tape is full of broken ankles and flailing arms. The Francis Howell senior running back was an offensive force. The 6-foot and 200-pounder could turn a sliver of daylight into six points. He eluded hoards of would-be tacklers from August to November.
Despite that, Smith, the Post-Dispatch All-Metro Football Offensive Player of the Year, appeared destined to defend at the next level.
The 18-year-old speedster gave a verbal commitment to Northern Illinois. The Huskies recruited him to be a linebacker.
The way Smith tells it, Northern Illinois saw him make 15 tackles at against Elder, Ohio as a junior and loved his form, strength and speed. They envisioned him as a dominating defensive force. Smith, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, was willing to take on whatever role was necessary to make it at the Division I level.
“They really liked the way I was form tackling,” Smith said. “That's something that's hard to teach and they knew I had that. They thought 'put weight on this kid and he'll be perfect.'”
That was before Smith rushed for 2,046 yards and 27 touchdowns. It was before he caught 11 passes for 147 yards and four scores. It was before he turned opposing defenses inside out with his shifty hips and hard-to catch speed.
After Howell's season ended at 12-1 with a 25-20 Class 6 semifinal loss at Rockhurst, Smith took his official visit to Northern Illinois. It was then the Huskies' coaching staff told him he could choose his position. The Huskies wanted him any which way they could have him.
“They want me as a running back, as a linebacker, as a slot, as a free safety,” Smith said. “Whatever I want they'll try me out at. They want to give me the best opportunity they can.”
Coming into the season, Howell coach Bryan Koch had a similar plan. He and his coaching staff wanted to maximize Smith's talents on the offensive side. With fellow standout running back Desmond Niboh in the backfield with him, Smith wouldn't have to carry the full load. He could move around and exploit holes in the defense.
“We basically wanted to do with him what Florida did with Percy Harvin,” Koch said. “Line him up out wide, line him up in the slot, put him behind our quarterback, put him beside our quarterback and put him at every position on the field and do different things to make people account for him. He's a guy you have to game-plan for and you have to know where he's at.”
Only that plan was altered when Niboh suffered a high-ankle sprain in the season opener against Webster Groves. Smith went from Weapon X to workhorse.
He loved it.
Lining up in the backfield meant Smith had, as he would say, the privilege of running behind the best offensive line of his career. Left tackle Aaron Callaway (6-foot-4, 290-pounds), left guard Alex Lazano (6-0, 320), center Joe Stewart (5-11, 240), right guard Cole Clement (6-2, 270) and right tackle Austin Unterreiner (6-3, 270) earned Smith's praise at every turn. He gives them complete and total credit for his outlandish numbers.
“Those guys are bulldozers,” Smith said. “They did all the hard work. All I had to do was run, they had to plow.”
Smith did his part, too. He trained rigorously in the offseason with former St. Louis Rams running back and newly named Lutheran St. Charles football coach Arlen Harris. He was a regular with the Elite Football Academy. Smith pumped iron and sweated out weakness as he practically lived in the weight room.
That level of commitment is what Koch believes makes Smith such a unique young man.
“He has a ton of God-given ability, but I think what separates him, especially from a lot of high school kids, is his work ethic,” Koch said. “He's one of the hardest working kids we've had on and off the field.”
The way Smith handled the plaudits for his exploits only reinforced his character to Koch.
“Achieving such success with such humility, it really refreshing in today's society when not a lot of people are like that,” Koch said. “It's truly genuine. He really means it when he talks about how thankful he is for the supporting cast that we have.”
Smith's relationship with his teammates was something he will always cherish. The Vikings did not achieve their goal of winning the state championship but Smith wouldn't trade his experience. Not if it meant giving up those closest to him.
“Truthfully it's an amazing thing to experience that with those type of men. Getting to the semifinals was a blessing,” Smith said. “I got to play on that field with my brothers and it was a really great time. Despite the loss, just being able to play my last game with them was an amazing feeling. Nothing can take that away.”
Smith will now take his talents to the next level. He said he'll start out at running back and go from there. He has been a running back since his Pee Wee football days in Texas. Born and raised there until his family moved north after sixth grade, Smith thinks he can make the biggest impact as a running back.
Regardless of where he goes and what position he plays, Smith brings a fierce competitiveness, loyalty and determination to succeed.
And, quite possibly, a broken ankle or two.