This story has a happy ending, or at least a happy middle, for much remains in front of this 5-foot-10, 198-pound junior defensive back from Philly. After getting his first career start this past Saturday against Missouri, things definitely are looking up.
Smith had three tackles and played almost every snap at Georgia’s “star” position in a 26-22 road win against Missouri last weekend. The expectation is Smith will start again when Auburn comes to town this Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).
“It meant a lot to be just to be able to go out there and help the team however possible, in the best way I could,” said Smith, who was an All-American at West Virginia. “It meant a lot to be just to be out there after all I’ve been through”
It brings to mind the old Frank Lane quotation: “If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.”
It definitely has been stormy for Smith. And, actually, it was a teammate’s storm that has brought Smith his latest opportunity.
Sophomore Javon Bullard, who had started the previous four games at star, was suspended before Missouri game after being arrested for DUI on Sept. 25. Bullard was reinstated and likely will play this week. But the expectation is Smith will remain atop the depth chart.
There hasn’t been an announcement to that effect and most likely won’t be. Smith insists it doesn’t matter.
“We’re definitely competitive in the room,” Smith said of him and the other safeties and nickelbacks. “Everybody holds everybody accountable and pushes each other to do better. Because it’s always, ‘one man goes down, next man up.’ We’re always there for each other and pull for each other to get better. We always cheer each other on. Outside of football, we’re still tight.”
The expectation for Smith remains great. The thinking on him always has been that he’d be much more than a reserve at Georgia. After all, he came to Athens as a two-time All-American with the Mountaineers, earning freshman All-America honors his first season and first- and second-team All-America awards as a sophomore.
Smith was all over the field for West Virginia. Playing the role of “spear” in the Mountaineers’ scheme, he developed a reputation as a fearless tackler, especially considering his relatively diminutive statue. He piled up 114 tackles, four interceptions and a couple handfuls of TFLs.
Smith came to Georgia with hope of improving his NFL draft stock under Kirby Smart. He was sold on the merits of such a move due to the endorsements of fellow Philly residents D’Andre Smith and Mark Webb.
“Mark played (defense) and he kind of told me about how Coach Smart coaches everybody hard getting ready for the next level and the type of defense that they ran,” Smith said. “That was the biggest thing, getting coached hard and trying to have an opportunity to go to the next level.”
What nobody could foresee was the rash of injuries that beset Smith. After avoiding such setbacks West Virginia, Smith went down with sprained foot in preseason camp just weeks ahead of the 2021 season opener against Clemson. He missed the first five games.
Smith came back for the Auburn and played a significant role in the Bulldogs’ 34-10 road win over the 18th-ranked Tigers. He finished with 3 tackles. Looking for an expanding role from there, Smith suffered a torn ACL during the Georgia’s practice preparations for Kentucky the next week.
That was one year ago almost to the day.
“He’s had some unfortunate injuries and that happens,” Smart said this week. “But there are guys walking all over the NFL with the same (ACL) injury he had. I still think there are guys who are better the next year after that injury. He’s still in the first year recovering from it, but he’s done a really good job with that.”
The only remnant now is a knee brace that is barely visible under Smith’s uniform. Also, unseen is the determination in the young man’s heart.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” Smart said. “He’s very bright and he’s very conscientious. Those two things will get you far when you’re intelligent. He asks really smart questions. He takes the initiative to watch a lot of tape. He’s done everything we’ve asked, and he’s a great kid.”
Smith also is determined. That’s what keeps him going despite all the setbacks that have been thrown in his path.
That and his daughter back home in Philly. Smith said Zyla is being well taken care of by family, and he interacts with her as often as possible over the phone and Internet.
The plan is for all of them to be reunited full-time as soon as dreams are realized or abandoned. As of now, they’re a long way from being abandoned.
“My family means everything to me,” Smith said. “It has definitely been hard, but I go by the phrase, ‘Sacrifice now to live how you want to live in the future.’ So, I have to sacrifice now in order for me to take care of (Zyla) in the future.”