ATHENS – As Arian Smith stood at a lectern fielding questions after Georgia’s football practice Tuesday night, his left eyebrow stayed cocked just a little higher than the right. His lips remained pursed except when talking. His answers came in quick, short bursts with unflinching eye contact.
Everything about the Bulldogs’ junior wide receiver oozes confidence. It’s probably founded in something Smith possesses that few humans do.
World class speed.
Smith was timed at 10.1 seconds in the 100 meters two years ago at the NCAA East Regional while running with the Bulldogs’ track team. That same year, Smith carried the baton for a Georgia 4x100-meter relay squad that ran a school record time of 38.54 and finished second in the NCAA Championship.
Fast-forward to Tuesday and Smith’s probably even faster now. One can’t be sure because he’s not getting timed these days. Somewhat grudgingly, Smith has given up track to focus full time on football.
“It’s tough to give up,” Smith said. “I mean, like, me and (Georgia track star) Matt (Boling) go way back to before we got here. So, I do want to run. I came here to run track and play football. But my first priority is football. So, it’s going to be tough, but I know what I’m here for.”
What makes Smith’s track exploits to date so impressive is they have come as a part-time sprinter. Since signing with Georgia out of Florida’s Lakeland High School, the majority of Smith’s energy has been expended on football.
He’d train with the track team whenever he could but, essentially, he’d remain with football until after spring practice. By then, track teams are well into championship season. Yet, Smith was able to step in and earn a spot on a national championship-contending relay team.
That is, when Smith hasn’t been hurt. And that hasn’t been very often.
Injuries and their subsequent rehabs have kept Smith out of action a lot, both on the track and the gridiron. He had surgery for a high-ankle sprain last August that sidelined him for the first four games of the 2022 season. Smith was limited to four games in both 2020 and ‘21 seasons due to lower-body injuries. Those ranged from turf toe to knee contusion to broken leg. There also was a wrist injury mixed in there in 2021.
Yet, whenever Smith has been suited up for the Bulldogs, he seems to be running past defensive backs. Georgia fans certainly will recall Smith getting loose for a 76-yard, game-turning touchdown in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal last December. They might also remember Smith entering the Tennessee game in the first quarter and immediately hauling in a 52-yard pass from quarterback Stetson Bennett.
Such plays have been Smith’s M.O. (modus operandi) since he first donned the red and black. The redshirt junior has caught only 12 career passes, but they have averaged an astonishing 32.2 yards per catch. They’ve also gone for four touchdowns – or one per every three receptions.
Now entering his fourth season, the thought is perhaps Smith ought to be getting more balls thrown his way. That certainly is the goal.
“I’m just trying to get better at football as a whole,” Smith said after Georgia’s seventh spring practice on Tuesday. “Not just going deep, but the small stuff, too, details, blocking, catching short routes and taking them for 50. You know, everything all-around for receivers.”
Intriguingly, it might be harder than ever for Smith to get onto the field. The Bulldogs boast one of the deepest and most talented receiver corps in the SEC this season. Even after losing junior A.D. Mitchell to a transfer to Texas, Georgia goes 24 deep at the wideout position, including walkons. As for the scholarship set, it includes returning starters Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, the additions of transfers Dominic Lovett (Missouri) and Rara Thomas (Mississippi State), plus four blue-chip recruiting prospects.
There’s also a tight end named Brock Bowers who might command some targets. As a result, Georgia boasts four of the SEC’s top 17 receivers from a year ago.
Of this, Smith’s well aware. Yet, he remains coolly confident. He knows he has more speed than any of them, and that’s saying something with this crowd. Almost every scholarship member of the receiver group runs a sub-11.0 100. Fellow wideout C.J. Smith has been timed run a 10.5 100 meters. Dwight Phillips, a 2024 commitment, just ran a 10.3 in a high school meet. Several of Georgia’s skill players on both sides of the ball were state champion sprinters.
Smith, though, is nationwide. He was asked, point blank, if he remains the team’s fastest player.
“What y’all think?” he shot back, left eyebrow raised.
Asked if any teammates had challenged him to a race, Smith laughed.
“Nah, they don’t want to challenge me,” he said. “They know.”
Smith playfully pointed out that’s after “three surgeries on one leg.” But he also said he’s not taking anything for granted this year. He’s taking football more seriously than ever.
Smith said he’s going to physical therapy three times a day -- first thing in the morning, before practice and after practice. He’s studying his playbook more than ever. He’s taking extra time to work with coach Bryan McClendon on route-running, particularly underneath.
At this point, everybody knows Smith can go deep. He wants to prove this season there’s more to him than that.
“My short speed is what I’m focusing on. Getting in and out of cuts, stuff like that,” he said. “I can run, but I need to stop-and-go, get the play calls, get lined up.”
As for track, that’ll just have to wait. No need to hurry with Smith’s speed.
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