The rust is all but gone and the flashes are already coming more frequently now.
In one moment Kevin Smith has a would-be tackler grasping at air with a spin move that raises eyebrows and has even the most hardened coach whistling in appreciation.
And in the next he is bursting through a seam at the line of scrimmage or latching onto a pass with the soft hands of a safecracker.
Yes, if you were parachuted into Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp over the last couple of days and asked to point out which of the running backs has five years of NFL experience on his resumé, almost certainly all fingers would be pointing at the dude in jersey No. 35.
It's not that the others challengers to Will Ford's job haven't jumped out, too -- Nic Grigsby, Paris Cotton and Errol Brooks have also been impressive -- but a guy doesn't finish eighth in Heisman Trophy voting and then earn the starting tailback gig for the Detroit Lions if he doesn't have some heaven-sent gifts.
Even if he has been away from the game for over a year.
"It just feels so good to be out there, man. It feels good to have a ball in my hands again," said Smith after Day 2 of rookie camp. "I'm still learning the playbook. I'm not playing as fast as I would if I had the playbook in the back of my head, but it's coming.
"It's fun. I appreciate the chance to be out on the field."
It's here where a brief Smith refresher might be in order. A star at the University of Central Florida -- he broke Marcus Allen's single-season carries record and fell 62 yards short of busting Barry Sanders' single-season rushing mark -- Smith was drafted by the Lions and put up some solid numbers in five years in Detroit before injuries began to take their toll.
Released by the Lions, Smith didn't play a down last season, spurning a couple of look-see offers from other NFL clubs to heal up and look after his a four-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter. And when the Bombers called this winter about an offer to come north, his competitive juices started flowing again.
"I missed everything. Meeting new guys... the locker-room... everything that comes with the game," said Smith. "I missed just being a player, being out here and going to meetings. When you're on a team it's like, 'ahhh, we got meetings.' But when you're not on a team it's, 'I wish I was in meetings right now.'
"I've always appreciated the game, but I have an appreciation just for being on a team and knowing that any day could be my last. That makes it different for me now."
That hunger and passion are already showing. And according to Bomber head coach Mike O'Shea, Smith has done nothing that would suggest he is carrying that ugly 'I'm an ex-NFLer, watch me dominate' attitude so many who come north often ooze.
"He's been very humble in the first couple of days," said O'Shea. "He was very quiet. I had to engage him myself just to see if he was breathing. He cracked a smile one time and he's been smiling ever since.
"He's put a few very impressive plays on tape for us to watch. And I think he's going to get better, too."
That's a scary-good scenario for the Bombers, who began last season with Chad Simpson at tailback, finished with Will Ford in the backfield and were second-last in the CFL in rushing yards. After all, a guy with Smith's credentials and drive to find joy in the game again makes for a potentially powerful combo.
"You don't realize how fast you can get old in this game," said Smith. "Right now I'm probably the oldest (running) back in the room at 27. It seems like yesterday I was 24 and when I got in the league (NFL) I was just 20 and one of the youngest guys on the team. It goes so fast, man. You have to appreciate it. If you still love to do it and you get a shot, you take it.
"I still have a passion for playing football. The Bombers are giving me a shot, so I'm giving it my all."
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