The next week, Smith, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound redshirt junior from Ellicott City, Md., was at receiver against Nebraska.
"I'm here to make big plays," Smith said.
On a night when the Nittany Lions' offense continued to labor in an 18-10 loss in Lincoln, Neb., a night when senior Tony Johnson dropped two passes at crucial junctures of the game, Smith had the team's longest play - a 31-yard reception from quarterback Zack Mills.
Later, during the same fourth-quarter drive, as Penn State made its final thrust, Smith appeared to make a sideline catch inside the Nebraska 30-yard line. He was ruled out of bounds. The video replay appeared to dispute the official's call.
"If you look at the tape, he's in," said Paterno, who spent much of last season blasting the officiating, particularly following overtime losses to Iowa and Michigan. "That is a big play."
The good news for Smith is that he is back where he belongs, bringing the experience and enthusiasm Penn State desperately needs at receiver as the 1-2 Nittany Lions take on Kent State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Last season, as the third receiver, Smith showed sure hands and the running skills that made him a standout tailback at Howard High School. He flashed enough potential to suggest he could develop into a go-to guy.
But Paterno felt he needed more depth in the secondary. Anwar Phillips' status was uncertain because of a felony sexual assault charge - he was recently acquitted and is back with the team - and Yaacov Yisrael was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery.
"I kind of wasn't getting the look I wanted at receiver," Smith said. "I wanted to get on the field in some place. It just so happened the opportunity came at defensive back. It was kind of a mutual decision to move me there. I tried to live with the decision and do what I could to help the team."
But as he watched the younger receivers struggle to get open, Smith felt the team would be better served if he was on the field running crisp patterns and making catches. And he made it known to Paterno.
"It's great to have him back on offense," Mills said. "He's a guy who has some experience at the position. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the position."
Smith also brings a lot of suggestions to the huddle, constantly yapping in Mills' ear to remind him that he's getting open, that he can handle his defender.
"I'm one of the guys on the team who might annoy you," Smith said. "It's like, 'Hey, Zack, they played this kind of defense on the last play.' Things like that. Quarterbacks go through so much stuff, sometimes they get sidetracked, so I like to remind him about certain things. And the only way you can do that is to talk. Maybe I can bring enthusiasm to the offense. I just try to get everybody up a little bit."
Talking helped get Smith back to receiver. The Monday after the Boston College game, receivers coach Kenny Carter called Smith and told him he was back with the offense. Smith said he's not sure whose decision it was. Perhaps Paterno wanted a little more solitude during a game. More than likely, the coach realized that Smith was one of his best receivers and that the Nittany Lions had better start throwing the ball successfully to keep the season from becoming a disaster. Smith himself told him so.
"During the Boston College game, a couple of times Coach Paterno and I exchanged words," Smith recalled. "I wasn't really playing on defense. I can do the job on offense. Coach Carter also knows I can do the job. I'm a little more comfortable playing receiver. I was hungry. I'm more of an offensive-minded person. I'm the type of player who's really into the game.
"I think that maybe he [Paterno] noticed that."
Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or email@example.com.