Accomplished quarterback that he was, Patrick Smith called an audible. Suddenly and surprisingly, Tennessee State has a promising wide receiver.
Smith has been a revelation at a new position, in his first season, as the Tigers (4-5, 1-5 Ohio Valley Conference) head to Tennessee Tech (3-7, 2-5) Saturday on ASN in the season finale.
“I thought it was possible,” Smith said, “but I didn’t think I’d be having this type of year.”
Smith is far and away Tennessee State’s leading receiver, with nearly twice as many catches (47) as teammate Joshawn Bowens (24). The redshirt sophomore leads the OVC in receiving yards per game (103.7) and averages a gaudy 19.9 yards per catch, with nine touchdowns.
All while still learning the position.
“He has a knack for separating from defenders and getting open,” Tigers wide receivers coach Kevin Mashak said. “I wish I could take credit for that, like I coached him to do the things he’s doing, but I can’t. If I’m honest, I have to tell you that I’m lucky to have him and to be able to work with him.”
Smith arrived at Tennessee State after a standout high school career, leading Memphis’ Whitehaven High to the 6A state championship as a spread quarterback, accustomed to shotgun snaps and playmaking on the fly.
But the Tigers ran a traditional, pro-style offense with the quarterback under center and a bunch of massive, road-grading offensive linemen. The 5-11½, 200-pound Smith struggled with sight lines and passing lanes, and too often found himself scrambling and out of sync as he tried to adapt to the offense.
Shortly into his first camp, he and the staff concluded mutually that he might be a better fit elsewhere. Though he was primarily a quarterback in high school, he played a little of everywhere – safety, cornerback, special teams as a return man. Tennessee State’s staff saw an elusive playmaker who was a difficult matchup.
“I thought I could get on the field quicker and contribute as a receiver,” Smith said.
Smith worked at wide receiver, and a little as scout team quarterback, while redshirting as a freshman. He sat out last season, as well, due to a certification issue. He’s made up for lost time since.
In the season opener versus Alabama State, he caught six passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. Eight of his nine touchdown catches covered at least 30 yards. Five covered at least 60 yards. His most recent game was a monster performance in an overtime loss to Murray State, where he caught nine passes for 248 yards, including touchdown receptions of 70 and 81 yards.
Though Smith is by no means a finished product, playing quarterback has flattened the learning curve a bit for him at receiver.
“When I was playing quarterback,” he said, “I always knew where I wanted my receivers to be, so I try to get to those spots. From reading defenses, it makes it easier to find open spots in the zone and against coverages.”
Mashak spent the previous 2½ years working with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars before returning to Tennessee State last June. While he doesn’t directly compare Smith to players he watched in the league, he said the young wideout has qualities that translate.
“He has three things going for him,” Mashak said. “He has good hands, he tracks the ball, and he’s as coachable as anybody I’ve ever seen. God willing, and if we can keep him healthy and on track, there’s no doubt in my mind that he can be a special player and have opportunities beyond college.”
Mashak said that the next step for Smith is becoming more disciplined in route running. He must continue to read coverages and study opponents. He must become a more consistent downfield blocker.
Smith understands that he is no longer a surprise. He said that he must work much harder as defenses adjust to him. He embraces his new position, while never forgetting his previous one.
“I miss playing quarterback every day,” Smith said, “but you do what you’ve gotta do.”