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Sunday, January 6, 2008
Updated: January 7, 9:53 AM ET
After almost breaking rushing record, Smith to turn pro news services

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Central Florida's Kevin Smith, the nation's leading rusher this season, changed his mind and will turn pro, he confirmed Sunday night.

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Smith seriously challenged Barry Sanders' NCAA record of 2,628 rushing yards in a season but finished 61 yards short. The running back was hailed as a hero three weeks ago for deciding to stay in school to earn a degree and help build UCF's burgeoning program.

"When I had the press conference a few weeks ago, that's how I felt then," Smith told the Orlando Sentinel. "I think ... with decisions people know you're gonna go back and forth and change your mind until you realize what you really want to do. Two weeks ago I had every intention of going back and being a Knight. My true supporters will understand and realize I'm doing what's best for me."

Another season would have put Smith well within reach of former Wisconsin back Ron Dayne's NCAA career record.

Smith said it had nothing to do with records. He said he made the previous announcement to deflect attention leading up to UCF's Liberty Bowl matchup against Mississippi State. Smith also said the 10-3 loss in that game was no factor.

"Me coming back had nothing to do with records. I was here a lot of years -- that's not a reason," Smith told The Associated Press.

Smith, a high school honor roll student, said he wanted to come back and get his degree -- partly on the advice of his mother. But he returned to hometown Miami after the bowl game, and they had a long talk about his future.

"She basically told me, 'Do what makes you happy,'" Smith said.

Smith's change of heart was first reported by WFTV, Orlando's ABC affiliate. Smith said at a press conference Dec. 18 he would return to school, defying analysts who said he had nothing left to prove, and would be risking injury with more time in college.

"Kevin had a great career at UCF," coach George O'Leary said in a written statement. "We thank him for his contributions over the past three years and wish him nothing but the best."

The biggest knock on Smith was that he accomplished those feats in Conference USA, though he also rushed for 149 yards and two TDs against Texas this season.

Smith isn't known as a big-time speedster, though he is fast. His greatest asset is patience and vision -- knowing where to make cuts to break long runs. He actually hasn't been timed in a 40-yard dash since high school, and said he's eager to prove he can run with the big guys.

"This is what people want to see: 'Is he fast,'" Smith said. "They want to know how fast I'm going to be. They don't have to see if I'm a three-down back, because I played three downs."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.