2020 WINNER – DEVONTA SMITH (Alabama)
How an ‘Under-Sized’ DeVonta Smith Became Larger Than Life and the Heisman Front-Runner
The Crimson Tide’s superstar wide out and Heisman finalist is leaving Tuscaloosa with a legacy that will be marked by determination and strength to overcome extreme odds
(Originally published on si.com on Jan. 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Zephaniah Powell remembers one of the first times he strolled down the hallways of Amite High School soon after taking the head coaching job to lead the Warriors’ football program and seeing the darnedest thing.
A scrawny, teenage DeVonta Smith doing at least 10 push-ups whenever he saw his reflection in a window or a mirror.
“Coach, I’m just trying to get bigger, trying to get stronger,” the star wide out would tell Powell.
At that time, Smith stood at roughly six-foot, 150 pounds and was already one of the hottest recruits in the state of Louisiana.
Powell says throughout the school day Smith, or ‘Tay-Tay’ as he is known by throughout the Tangipahoa Parish, would crank out at least 100 push-ups a day before football workouts or practice would even begin.
That work ethic, discipline, and dedication is what has propelled Smith, the now University of Alabama standout to where he’s at now — on the brink of becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991 after a 2020 campaign where he has caught 105 passes for 1,641 yards, and 20 touchdowns.
But throughout his teenage years growing up in Amite City, Smith was told he couldn’t be a football player because of his smaller stature. Even one of his closest mentors and former coaches at the time, Christoper Gordon, was taken aback by what he saw from Smith at his first ever high-school practice.
“I remember showing up to his first practice and there he is standing in front of the drills line with all the wide receivers,” Gordon said. “I kinda stood there, waiting for a senior or someone to move out the way, but he is in front of the line. He just kept looking at me saying, ‘Let’s go Coach, let’s get after it.'”
From that moment forward, Smith would master each drill and run each route crisper than the next, leaving Gordon baffled with more and more drills to come up each day when he got home from the Warriors’ practice field.
“I knew he was going to be special from right there,” Gordon said. “Just watching him put the work in from day one. He wasn’t afraid to compete. And like what everyone else said because of his frame when I first saw him, I was like, ‘Who is this skinny kid with the long feet?’ And from that first day of practice, he showed me who he is, that he was here to stay, and that everyone will know his name.”
Gordon was Smith’s wide receiver coach for his freshman and sophomore seasons, then he switched over to defensive coordinator at Amite for his final two prep years.
While making a name for himself as an all-around pass catcher, Smith would double as a ball-hawking, head-hunting defensive back.
“He is probably the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” Gordon said. “Most kids don’t want to play defense because there isn’t a lot of shine and you have to be tough. But when we would put him at defensive back, he would come down, throw his body into guys and knock them out. That’s what I’m really proud of, his toughness. He will try to rip your head off.”
When Smith arrived to the Capstone as part of the legendary 2017 signing class, he even saw time in that position group during spring ball before playing wide receiver full time.
“I think it speaks volumes for what kind of person he is, what kind of competitor he is, what kind of team player that he is,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Smith’s brief stint as a defender as a freshman. “Probably one of the most selfless guys that I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach in terms of whatever he can do to help the team he wants to do.”
That relentless mindset and competitive nature has been on display all throughout Smith’s four-year career at Alabama, becoming the Crimson Tide’s all-time receiving (3,750) and receiving-touchdown leader (43).
His success as a pass catcher is partially due to all of the time spent in the secondary at Amite because Smith knows the moves of every defender who dares to guard him. That could be why he always seems one step ahead of everyone else in his route running.
“He just understands the game,” Gordon said. “It comes very easy to him.”
Smith’s 2020 Heisman campaign has looked exactly like that to the college football world — effortless.
It also hasn’t been without its signature moments like the one-handed grab over LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the punt return touchdown against Arkansas, breaking the all-time SEC career touchdown record against Kentucky, the record 15 catches in the SEC title game versus Florida, and lastly and more recently, the hat-trick against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.
Because of his unimpressive size, Gordon believes opposing defenders have taken Smith and his other-worldly ability for granted. Their mistakes have led the way for ‘Tay-Tay’ to earn the nickname of ‘Slim Reaper’ around his Crimson Tide teammates.
“He’s a stick of dynamite,” Gordon, who Smith calls after each and every game, said. “I think Mac Jones said it best, he is a Michael-Jordan level competitor. When he steps inside those white lines, he is trying to kill you and leave no doubt. It’s like he flips a switch. After the game, he is very humble in what he says but during it, he wants to kill you.”
Through it all, Smith has stayed the course and hasn’t once yet the moment get too big for him or drifted away from Saban’s trademark ‘Process’ from when he hauled in the game-winning touchdown pass against Georgia in the 2017 national title contest to always giving the most Saban-like answers in press conferences when talking about his own and the team’s success.
The 100 push-ups in high school eventually turned into 100 catches after each practice on the jugs machine at Alabama. In an age where the word ‘diva’ defines most receivers, Smith has focused more on the ‘we’ rather than the ‘me’.
“Just you’ve got to believe in the things that you do,” Smith said of how the power of belief has changed his life. “If you don’t believe in it, then why are you doing it? You just can’t be out here doing something that you don’t believe in. You put your mind to some things and eventually it’s going to happen.”
Smith has re-wrote most of the Crimson Tide record books in 2020 and there’s a chance he stays at the top of them for a very long time. But before he is selected in the 2021 NFL draft this spring, he has laid the groundwork for his current teammates and been the shining example for just how far doing your due diligence and the right things day in, day out will take you.
His legacy in Tuscaloosa is one that will be unmatched for the consensus All-American, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, AP College Football Player of the Year, and two-time Alabama team captain.
“I think what separates him the most from everybody is just his hard work and discipline,” Alabama wide out John Metchie III said. “He’s an extremely disciplined person and works extremely hard. And also consistency. Just shows up every day and brings his best every day. So I think that’s definitely the characteristics that separate him.
“Just learning from Smitty, I think, just playing with him, playing alongside him and seeing him every day, I think I’ll be able to take just the focus, the focus of being able to focus on the task at hand and being able to be consistent and bring your best every day.”
He would have likely been a first-round pick had he chosen to leave Tuscaloosa after his junior year in 2019, but Smith ultimately decided to give it one final ride and earn his degree.
Twelve games in with only the national title matchup with Ohio State on Jan. 11 left, Smith has felt a sense a vindication each time he has stepped on the field this season.
“Knowing that I wanted to finish things the right way,” Smith said. “I wanted to get my degree. I feel like I made the right decision, a great decision. And being around this team has opened my eyes to a lot of things and just made me very comfortable and glad that I made that decision.”
On Tuesday night, Smith has a chance to bookend his career with college football’s highest honor when the winner of the Heisman Trophy is announced at 6 p.m (CT). It’s down to him, his signal caller Mac Jones, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, and Florida’s Kyle Trask.
The city of Amite threw Smith a parade after his heroics against the Bulldogs in 2018 and Gordon even suggests now, that a statue be erected in his honor if he is named the sport’s most outstanding player.
Now standing at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Smith isn’t the scraggly kid he once was. Instead, he’s transformed into a grown man who is larger than life in Tuscaloosa and etched his name into Crimson Tide lore forever regardless of the result of the Heisman voting.
“I’ll probably go back to the place I was in after that Georgia game,” Powell said of what he will experience if he hears his former player’s name called to win the award. “That game had started so late and my wife and our new-born baby were trying to sleep. So I am trying to be quiet, but I remember yelling, screaming, and hollering right when the ball left Tua’s [Tagovailoa] hands and I saw that he was wide open. I ended up waking our baby up and calling all the other coaches. A range of emotions just went through me and I scared my wife half-to-death.
“If he takes the trophy home, I’ll be flooded with those same emotions. It will just be pure excitement.”
Click here to view all photos from the 2021 Paul Hornung Award Banquet
Chosen as finalists were Michael Carter (North Carolina); D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan); Travis Etienne (Clemson); and Kadarius Toney (Florida).
Senior running back / return specialist, 5-8.25, 199 lbs.
North Carolina Tar Heels (8-3, 7-3 in the ACC)
Carter played in all 11 games as a big play running back and outstanding pass catcher who also handled kickoff returns. He averaged 8.0 yards per carry (third nationally), 10.7 yards per catch, and 151.6 all-purpose yards per game (13th nationally). Carter was second in the nation with runs of 10+ yards and averaged 10.4 yards per carry in games against teams in the Top 25. He compiled 308 all-purpose yards and two scores against Miami, and 251 all-purpose yards and two scores against Virginia Tech. Carter made the Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll four times: against NC State, Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, touching the ball three different ways and accumulating 100+ all-purpose yards and touchdowns in each game.
All-Purpose: 1,668 yards (151.6 avg. per game)
Rushing: 1,245 yards, 9 TDs (113.2 avg. per game)
Receiving: 267 yards, 2 TDs (24.3 avg. per game)
Kick Return: 156 yards (14.2 avg. per return)
Senior wide receiver / return specialist, 5-9, 190 lbs.
Western Michigan Broncos (4-2 overall and MAC)
Eskridge played in all six games, led the nation with 213 all-purpose yards per game (130.7 receiving, 4.5 rushing and 77.3 returning kickoffs.) and scored two different ways – receiving and returning a kickoff. Known for his breakaway speed, Eskridge had touchdown receptions of 85, 76, 57, 51 and 49 yards and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. He made the Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll twice: in a win over Central Michigan when he caught four passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns and recovered two onside kicks late in the game; and in a win over Northern Illinois when he compiled 285 all-purpose yards and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
All-Purpose: 1,119 yards (223.8 per game)
Rushing: 1 rush, 27 yards (27 per rush, 5.4 per game)
Receiving: 25 receptions, 660 yards, 7 TDs (5 receptions per game, 26.4 per catch, 132 per game)
Kick Return: 15 returns, 432 yards, 1 TD (28.8 per return, 86.4 per game)
Senior running back / kick returner, 5-10, 205 lbs.
Clemson Tigers (10-1 overall, 8-1 in the ACC)
Etienne played in all 11 games as a premiere running back and pass catcher who saw spot duty on kick and punt returns at crucial times in big games. He touched the ball an average of 18 times per game rushing, receiving and returning punts and kicks; averaged 145.3 all-purpose yards per game; and scored 15 touchdowns rushing and receiving. Etienne returned a kickoff to near midfield to help change the momentum when Clemson trailed Boston College 28-13, and set the tone for the second half with a 37-yard kickoff return to near midfield in the ACC Championship against Notre Dame. Etienne earned Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll twice: 264 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a win against Boston College; and in the ACC Championship, he touched the ball three different ways for 189 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
All-Purpose: 1,598 yards (145.3 avg per game)
Rushing: 882 yards, 13 TDs (80.2 avg per game)
Receiving: 524, 2 TDs (47.6 avg per game)
Senior wide receiver / return specialist, 6-0, 193 lbs.
Florida Gators (8-3 overall and 8-2 in the SEC)
Kadarius Toney started all 11 games and averaged 131.9 all-purpose yards per game touching the ball five different ways – receiving, rushing, passing and returning kicks and punts. He was one of three FBS players to record touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning punts; and one of four to record two touchdowns receiving and one rushing in a game. Toney had receptions of 57, 51 and 49 yards; runs of 50 and 13 yards; punt returns of 50, 26 and 19 yards; and threw a 12-yard pass. He made the Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll four times: 101 all-purpose yards and three scores against Mizzou; 191 all-purpose yards and a score against Vandy; 248 all-purpose yards and a touchdown against LSU; and 211 all-purpose yards and a score against Alabama.
All-Purpose: 1,439 yards (130.8 avg per game)
Receiving: 984 yards, 10 TDs (89.5 avg. per game)
Rushing: 161 yards, 1 TD (14.6 avg per game)
Kick Return: 155 yards (22.1 avg per return)