By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — There’s little glory in Kiero Small’s duties with Arkansas’ offense.
The fullback is asked to run through the line of scrimmage, look for a linebacker and make contact. A good block means an Arkansas tailback gains positive yards. A bad one could result in a minimal gain or lost yardage.
No matter what happens, though, Small returns to the huddle, lines up, and does it again.
"I think playing fullback, a thing you’ve really got to have is the will," Small said. "The want to to go hit another guy play after play. ... I’m satisfied with hitting a guy and seeing a running back run past and get a couple yards, get a lot of yards. I enjoy a lot."
It’s a thankless position, but one Small has embraced as BCS No. 10 Arkansas (6-1, 2-1 in SEC) prepares to play at Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday. The 5-foot-10, 255-pound battering ram is happy to do the dirty work to help Arkansas succeed and, because of it, has quickly become a favorite among coaches, teammates and fans.
"He enjoys the position," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "He understands his role with the team is to run out there and give us more toughness. So I can’t say enough about the guy. He’s one of those unsung heroes with our offense, there’s no doubt."
You certainly won’t find the Baltimore native complaining about touching the ball only once this season despite being a talented tailback in high school. It’s just not in his makeup.
Small says he understands and, more importantly, appreciates his role after the circuitous path he has taken to Arkansas.
The truth is, having anything to do with a team ranked in the BCS top 10 wasn’t in his wildest dreams a few years ago. Not when Small, a year-and-a-half removed from his final high school football game, was working in his father’s T-shirt store in Maryland.
"It was a shock," Small said. "Because I never really had a job or anything like that."
The brief background: Small was a superb tailback at Cardinal Gibbons High, earning second-team all-state honors. His football career was delayed, though, after failing to earn a qualifying test score. He enrolled at a Pennsylvania prep school - Valley Forge Military Academy - to play football and work on academics. But, once again, he didn’t qualify.
So Small, according to his father Johnny Stith, went back home and "got a feel for what grown folks do." He worked at the father’s store and began to earn a living while he regrouped and considered his next step.
Small woke up early, went to work and kept regular hours. Stith — who wanted his son to go to college whether it involved football or not — gave Small plenty to do. He was placed in charge when Stith had errands or deliveries.
"He pretty much took care of the store," Stith said. "He never complained. He never moaned and groaned. He knew what his daily responsibilities were and he took care of it."
Small worked for his father for a year-and-a-half. It was a long time away from the game and Small admitted there were moments when he wondered if he would ever play again.
But Small also said the longer he worked, the more determined he was to find a way back.
"I always played football," Small said. "So getting up and having to go to work every day, it taught me some toughness, also. Like, ‘Hey this is what you have to do until you get back into football.’ So that’s what I did."
Small found an opening thanks to his cousin, Tim Smith, who played at a junior college in California. Smith told Hartnell Community College coach Matt Collins about Small, a running back, and said he could help.
Collins said it was easy to see why Small may have slipped through the cracks.
"His height was an issue in some people’s eyes," Collins said. "But you’re looking for football players. I knew right away, regardless of his height, he was a player. So we needed to put him in pads and get him out here."
Small packed his bags and headed to the West Coast. He excelled at linebacker and fullback at Hartnell, earning All-America honors and earned some attention from Division I schools.
It included Arkansas, who, according to coach Bobby Petrino, had been looking for a fullback for three years. Small, with his short, stocky frame, may not look like the ideal choice, but the Razorbacks believed he was perfect for the job because of his background and skill set.
"I think he gives our offense energy because of his toughness and physicalness," Petrino said. "When you watch the video and you see the hits and collisions and the number of the times he’s the hammer and not the nail show up. It’s a lot of fun. He really helps us."
His job goes unnoticed on most plays, but there have been some eye-opening moments.
Small planted a Texas A&M defender on his backside to pave the way for a touchdown earlier this month. He had an important block on Joe Adams’ 92-yard run a week later. He caught an Ole Miss linebacker just right last Saturday, knocking his helmet off as Dennis Johnson slipped through a gap for a nice gain.
Small’s physical play is evident in other ways, too. He has had to have his facemask replaced eight times this season, bending them on collisions with linebackers and safeties.
"That guy comes downhill and he’s not afraid to knock your block off," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. "I mean, just look at those highlights against (Texas) A&M and pretty much every team we’ve played."
Small’s family hasn’t been able to watch him in person this season, but Stith said they’re hoping to be at the regular-season finale at LSU. For now, though, they see him achieving his goals — which took a long time to fulfill — when the Razorbacks are on television.
"I’m proud of him," Stith said. "Like I told him even before, ‘To me, had it been Arkansas or Arkansas State it wouldn’t have mattered. I was proud of you because you went out to California and you just pressed forward.’
"To stick to it, as a parent, that’s what you want to see from your children."
Collins said Small calls him after games to talk about his performance or experiences, too.
He often expresses disbelief to his former coach, telling Collins "I have to pinch myself and remind myself this isn’t a dream."
He may play a thankless position, but that doesn’t matter. Small says it’s "an honor" playing anywhere in big-time college football.
"It’s something that I always wanted to do and always knew that I could do," Small said. "It just took me a few steps to get to it. Right now, I’m just happy to be living my dream out."