Smith is the best of the Boiler best. He made first-team All-Big Ten after catching 91 passes for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns. It ranked as one of the greatest seasons ever by a Boilermaker, and he did it despite playing most of the season with a broken wrist.
“Everything I did hurt,” he said. “It was on my mind all the time.”
Now Smith is healthy and eager. He is 6-2, 226 pounds and sprinter-fast. And he can play any skill position. He's been a quarterback and a running back. Coaches will have lots of fun devising plays for him.
“They can throw me around wherever they want,” he said. “I can play slot. You can put me in the backfield. I can throw the ball around a little bit. It's going to be fun. It's good to have the trust of the coaches. They know that I'm versatile. They let me do all that.”
Change has been Smith's lifelong companion. He was born in Germany and grew up in a military family. His father, also Keith, served in Iraq and was gone for most of his son's high school years.
Smith arrived in West Lafayette as a dual-threat quarterback out of Texas. Defensive back injuries caused coaches to move him to safety as a true freshman. He totaled 11 tackles while playing in 11 games.
He redshirted his second year after leaving school to deal with a family crisis. He returned the next year and went back to quarterback, then was converted to receiver. He caught 49 passes for 486 yards as a redshirt sophomore before last season's breakout performance.
Coach Danny Hope said Smith could be one of the nation's best receivers. He anchors a receiver group that, while short on big-time numbers (Cortez Smith had 21 catches for 242 yards and a touchdown), is big on potential. Cortez Smith is 6-2 and 180.
Justin Siller is 6-4, 220. Gary Bush, Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross are fast. Ross has run a 4.32-second 40-yard dash.
“We're huge group of receivers and we all can run, catch and do the little things,” Keith Smith said. “We've been recruiting a lot of speed. It's going to be so much fun. There won't be a drop off from the first group to the second group. We all can get the job done.”
Hope said it's as good a group of receivers as he's ever had.
“We've got big receives with Keith, Cortez and Justin. Cortez really came on last year. He was our top receiver in the spring and he's run well over the summer. We signed some speed the last couple of years. We went south and got some fast players with Bush, Edison and now Ross. He might be our fastest player.”
That's why Smith isn't worried about double-teaming defenses.
“If they do, we'll run something where the defense has to respect the other receivers. Once they do, then they can't double me anymore.”
Purdue's self-destructive ways (29 turnovers last year) and 5-7 record were a motivator.
The fact that it won four of its last six games will be a “springboard going into this season,” Smith said.
“Knowing that we finished strong gave us something to rally behind. Everybody worked so hard the past couple of months to get ready for Sept. 4.”
That's the season opener at Notre Dame.