Smelter receiving raves at Tech in his ‘second’ sport

This happened weeks ago, before the season’s first game, back when practice was growing as stale as yesterday’s bagel:

As they walked back to the locker room at day’s end, a few Georgia Tech players began talking about what they were most looking forward to when they finally got around to playing. Paul Johnson overheard one voice in the chorus, and it sang the sweetest tune.

“I can’t wait until I get that first crack-back block.”

It was receiver DeAndre Smelter expressing his fondness not for catching the ball, not for basking in the cheers of a touchdown reception, not for any of the flamboyant activities associated with his position. No, Smelter, the receiver whose name summons the vision of making of metal through fire, celebrated the similarly dirty work of throwing himself in front of a runaway safety.

If he’s not careful, Smelter is going to make his run-first coach fall in love with the wide out.

At no time on the daily walk from the practice field to the locker room did Smelter say, “What I’m really looking forward to is breaking Virginia Tech’s heart with a 31-yard touchdown reception to tie the score with 123 seconds left.” Nevertheless, that’s what he did last week.

Smelter will happily comply with pretty much any request made of him at this point. Anything that puts him in the center of competition, anything that allows him to express his physical gifts without a hitch or hesitation.

Having spent the better part of three years at Tech fighting his body and frustrated by baseball, Smelter is a thoroughly born-again athlete as the Yellow Jackets’ leading receiver. He’s among those rare souls who can hopscotch between sports with ridiculous ease — “There are not many guys walking around on any campus who have the physical tools DeAndre has,” Tech baseball coach Danny Hall said. And here in his senior year, he has landed on the one that may just suit him best.

Every catch Smelter makes — and their numbers are compounding at an impressive rate — is an endorsement for adaptability and personal evolution.

Every college football game in which he appears is a celebration, like that first one just a year ago: “I can’t explain the feeling, running out of the tunnel to play (football) for the first time in four years. It was a blessing,” Smelter said.

“Man plans, God laughs” is a Yiddish proverb, but a kid from Macon can certainly relate. When Smelter arrived at Tech in 2010, having turned down the honor of being a 14th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, he had certain ideas where he would be in the fall of 2014, and they did not include laying down a crack-back block.

“A kid drafted out of high school, when you come into college you’re thinking I have to play three years before I can get drafted again. That was my mindset,” Smelter said. After doing his time in college, maybe regaining some of the velocity on his fastball that had begun to erode in high school, splitting time in the outfield, he’d be well into his climb up the minor league ladder by ’14.

The velocity, and some of the fierce movement to go with it, never did quite come back. A sore shoulder — the labrum tattered but never quite torn enough to demand surgery — persisted. Playing time in the outfield was hard to come by. Of his one regret concerning Smelter, Hall said, “If we spent a little more time with him hitting, he could have wound up a position player.”

He peaked as a freshman, starting 15 games in the outfield and giving up one earned run in 17 1/3 innings on the mound. He basically sat out in 2012, made 14 pitching appearances in 2013 and merely dabbled after he switched to football (two appearances last season).

The switch to football was the product of multiple family discussions. “I hated to see him frustrated, and he was to that point,” said his father, Vince Smelter. “I’d tell him, go talk to coach Johnson, see what he says.

“I always told him had too many options to be frustrated over one thing.”

Once Johnson got word that there was a high-class athlete at his door — one who was getting football feelers from a number of large schools, including Tech, even though he didn’t play his senior year at Tattnall Square Academy — the coach didn’t exactly require references and two forms of ID. You don’t question a windfall.

Tech receivers coach Al Preston was mildly delighted. He had been at Notre Dame when pitcher/pass catcher Jeff Samardzija started there, and loved the competitiveness that the combination seemed to foster.

Back at his place last weekend, while watching television, Smelter found himself absent-mindedly tossing a baseball from hand to hand. But he hasn’t thrown seriously since making the short walk from Russ Chandler Stadium to the big football practice facility.

“I do (miss baseball),” he said. “But those were some of my worse days, so making the switch to football has been good to me.”

It would be impossible to quantify Smelter’s impact by the quality of his blocking — that just doesn’t make for sexy numbers. So there’s this: Four games into this season, he has three 100-yard receiving games. Playing in an offense that ranks 121st of 124 teams in pass attempts and 117th in yards passing, Smelter ranks 14th in the country in yards per catch (24.2) and 24th in receiving yards (339). That’s only six yards short of his total for all of last season (when Vad Lee, not Justin Thomas was quarterback).

“He’s improved leaps and bounds,” Preston said. “Now he has a better understanding of what’s going to happen, seeing it, being able to react a lot better. Last year he’d get himself caught when they changed the coverage, and he didn’t pick it up quick enough. Now he understands how to see things, alignments, see what’s happening.”

Maybe that sore shoulder was a well-disguised blessing. One unintended consequence was that as Smelter shelved the idea of departing early through the baseball draft, he found himself refocusing in the classroom. He’s scheduled to get his business degree in December.

And with what smidgen of eligibility he’d have left, however, he does not intend to ask Brian Gregory about one shot at basketball — yes, he played that, too, in high school. “I think my better days in basketball were back then,” Smelter smiled.

But, then, he of all people should know better than to dismiss any option.

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