Before this season, DeVonta Smith was perhaps best known for his role in the most memorable play of the College Football Playoff era — one that occurred at the start of his college football journey.
The Alabama receiver, then a freshman, caught the game-winning 41-yard touchdown from Tua Tagovailoa for a 26-23 victory against Georgia in the 2018 national championship game. But his lasting memory of the play is a little different.
Smith was flanked in the end zone by future NFL first-round draft picks Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy. Henry Ruggs III, yet another future first-round pick, joined in afterward. That catch — that national championship — was for the other receivers.
"It was just the older guys we had then and the example they set for us," Smith told Sporting News. "We're just trying to do the same for everybody on the team now."
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Alabama is chasing that feeling again in 2020, and Smith is among those leading the charge. He, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris are part of an offense that averages 49.7 points per game. They have all produced double-take statistics this season, with Smith leading the FBS in receptions (98) and receiving yards (1,511) and finishing second in receiving touchdowns (17).
Smith’s decision to return for his senior season in a year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic was rewarded. For his efforts, Smith is Sporting News' 2020 Player of the Year.
"We had people that came back, and we weren't even sure we would have a season," Smith said. "We ended up having one, and that's the main thing I'm grateful for the most."
Smith said the Oct. 10 game against Ole Miss — in which the Crimson Tide beat the Rebels 63-48 by piling up 723 yards of offense — was the moment he realized how special this offense could be. Coordinator Steve Sarkisian kept all the right parts in motion.
"It's a lot of movement in the offense," Smith said. "We have a lot of shifts. People motion and move around. It's just giving the defense a lot of different looks and making them adjust."
But this season hasn't been without challenges. Star receiver Jaylen Waddle suffered a season-ending ankle injury on the opening play of the Tennessee game. Coach Nick Saban missed the Iron Bowl after testing positive for COVID-19. Center Landon Dickerson was lost for the College Football Playoff with a knee injury suffered in the SEC championship game.
Smith, however, said the sense of responsibility among the players continues to prevail. It does in the wide receivers' meeting room: Waddle still helps with film study. John Metchie has emerged as a solid No. 2. And Smith, who wanted to improve on finishing through contact and winning more 50-50 balls, stepped up to have his most productive season at Alabama.
Following Waddle's injury, Smith had a four-game stretch in which he caught 35 passes for 749 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. He capped that stretch with a 231-yard, three-touchdown outburst against LSU. He emerged as a punt returner as well, sparking a 49-0 run against Arkansas with an 84-yard return for touchdown. He finished the season with an Alabama single-game-record 15 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns against Florida in the SEC championship game.
Smith has developed a stronger voice on the sideline, too.
"Just being a more vocal leader," he said. "It’s talking to the young guys more and helping them with the playbook. To get them through the things of being a freshman, and the things that freshmen go through," he said.
That’s part of the "Process" pitch Saban has made famous throughout his tenure with the Crimson Tide. Under his tutelage, Alabama has produced seven receivers who have been drafted by NFL teams. That includes first-round picks Julio Jones (2011), Amari Cooper (2015), Ridley (2018), Ruggs (2020) and Jeudy (2020). Smith and Waddle appear to be the next in line, and both were on the field for that last national championship run.
"That's why I came to the University of Alabama — to win national championships," Smith said. "Just one isn't good enough. We're going to try to finish it out with one more."
Smith, however, isn’t looking back. He’s simply looking forward to the next opportunity against No. 4 Notre Dame in Friday's semifinal matchup.
"The main mission now is you're only guaranteed one game," he said. "We're only guaranteed the Notre Dame game. The only way we get to the national championship is if we win this one.
“So we have to come in and focus on the things we need to focus on, put the work in and just finish our journey."