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Inside Carter Smith’s return to Indiana football with Curt Cignetti: ‘They wanted me back’

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BLOOMINGTON — Indiana football offensive lineman Carter Smith was one of the rare returning players on the team’s roster who didn’t get displaced by a transfer. 

He didn’t even have to fend off one to retain his starting job.

Smith was penciled in the starting lineup at left tackle the minute he withdrew his name from the portal back in December. The 6-foot-5, 308-pound redshirt sophomore showed all sorts of promise in 2023 while starting every game at the position.

Once new coach Curt Cignetti brought back offensive line coach Bob Bostad — he was the only assistant from Tom Allen’s staff retained — the stage we set for Smith to help usher in a new era. 

More: Projected 2024 Indiana football offensive depth chart after spring practice

How Carter Smith’s path led back to Indiana football

There was a brief moment in late November when Smith thought everybody who recruited him to Indiana was gone — from head coach Tom Allen on down. It’s why the offensive lineman doesn’t have any regrets about entering the portal or taking a handful of visits to other schools.

“There was a lot riding on the decision,” Smith told The Herald-Times during IU’s spring camp.  

He visited programs with winning traditions like Florida State, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech as many of his former teammates found homes elsewhere including linemates Matthew Bedford (Oregon) and Khalil Benson (Colorado). 

Smith leaned on his family for guidance, but it wasn’t until Cignetti officially retained Bostad that the focus of those conversations shifted from weighing other options to staying put in Bloomington. 

“I trust Bostad 100 percent,” Smith said, emphasizing each syllable. 

Smith’s initial meeting with Cignetti, a face-to-face sit down in the coach’s sparse office, had an impact as well.

“He had his feet up on the desk,” Smith said, with a laugh. “He was like, I got a job to do.” 

That job was establishing a winning tradition at a school that hasn’t won a bowl game since 1991, but Cignetti expresses the same kind of bravado in private as he does in public. He made his pitch and let Smith huddle with his family to think things over.

The fact that Cignetti’s pitch didn’t come with any kind of ultimatum resonated with Smith. 

“They made it clear they wanted me back, but they were very respectful of me going off to some of the other schools,” Smith said. “I felt like I was in the right mindset. They made the decision easy because they respected me.”

Smith still felt a bit like a freshman when Indiana got back to work in January. He had a ton of new names to learn from the 28 mid-year enrollees to a near-completely revamped coaching and support staff. 

“I can definitely name everyone on offense,” Smith said, with a laugh.  

More: Projected 2024 Indiana football defensive depth chart after spring practice

The education of Carter Smith

Indiana’s 35-31 loss to Purdue provided plenty of motivation for Smith going into the offseason. 

It wasn’t just the heartbreaking nature of the defeat — the Boilermakers rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and took a lead with just 2:39 remaining — but Smith found his own performance lacking. 

“Both guys on the edge (Nic Scourton and Kydran Jenkins) were really fast,” Smith said. “They eventually figured out my game and we had to switch up so I could get some help from my guard when they were making interior moves.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Scourton accounted for six of his team’s 14 quarterback pressures in the game while Smith gave up three quarterback hurries, which tied for a season-high. 

It was in stark contrast to how Smith performed in pass protection for much of the season. He earned his first perfect grade of the fall just three weeks earlier when the previous staff handed out superlatives from the team’s upset win over Wisconsin.

Pro Football Focus had Smith graded out as IU’s highest-rated offensive lineman in 2023 and fifth-highest freshman offensive lineman in the Power Five. He played the third-most snaps (797) on the team and allowed 19 quarterback pressures (two sacks). 

The first step Smith took toward building on that success came during IU’s offseason conditioning program. Smith said he’s made huge gains in building a “better base of strength” as the team got to work under the supervision of new strength and conditioning coach Derek Owings. 

“I’m a pretty strong guy and I can show it on the field, but there’s still some spots I’m lacking in,” Smith said.

The work Smith got during spring camp was equally important. He echoed what many of his teammates have said about finding Cignetti’s heavy emphasis on team reps — having the offense go against the defense in 11 on 11 game-like situations — helpful. 

He also appreciated the new wrinkles defensive tackles coach Pat Kuntz and defensive ends coach Buddha Williams threw into the mix. 

“I think our defensive line has gotten a lot more freedom,” Smith said. “They’ve been really great even in one-on-ones, but in team reps they are doing some different stuff before they usually had to follow the play. They’ve been given the chance to show what they can do on their own.”

The daily reps against Kamara were an education itself. Kamara was a breakout defender for James Madison last year with 7.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.

“He’s a hassle, man,” Smith said. “He’s a really good defensive lineman. He’s probably the guy I have the most trouble with this year. He’s just so unpredictable. He’ll throw in a three-step move. Just a fake step to the inside. There’s so much to his game, it’s so hard to read. That’s what makes him such a good player.”

As Smith looks toward the fall, he’s hopeful all the work will pay off. He echoed what Cignetti said during camp about the offensive line being one of IU’s potential strengths. 

While Smith and Mike Katic are the lone returning starters, the Hoosiers brought in a ton of experience in the portal. 

Former Wisconsin offensive lineman Trey Wedig is expected to start at right tackle. He’s a fifth-year senior who has appeared in 35 games (eight starts) and played for Bostad before he came to Bloomington.  

James Madison transfers Nick Kidwell and Tyler Stephens will feature prominently on the interior of the line. Kidwell is a rare seventh-year player who has played in 52 games (35 starts) and Stevens has in 36 games (29 starts). 

Both have played numerous positions. 

“The bar has definitely been raised,” Smith said. 

Michael Niziolek is the Indiana beat reporter for The Bloomington Herald-Times. You can follow him on X @michaelniziolek and read all his coverage by clicking here.

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