Why DeVonta Smith is already one of the best receivers in SEC history ... and the "G.O.A.T." conversation is real
In the middle of Alabama’s victory against Georgia on Saturday night, a colleague reminded me of a headline that appeared on SDS in spring 2018.
“Nick Saban explains DeVonta Smith’s switch to defensive back.”
At the time, Smith was known as “the guy who caught 2nd-and-26.” All-time moment aside, the sophomore-to-be never had multiple catches in a game, and entering a 2018 season in which Alabama was loaded with more talented options ahead of him on the depth chart, it wasn’t necessarily a stunning development.
(For what it’s worth, the move was temporary. Saban lined him up with the cornerbacks just because they didn’t have enough cornerbacks at that point of spring ball. There were never any plans to permanently switch Smith to defense.)
Fast forward to Saturday night against Georgia when that reminder surfaced. Smith completely took over against what many believed to be the No. 1 defense in the country. By night’s end, he had 11 catches for 167 yards and 2 scores. He didn’t exactly lack NFL Draft clips, but on Saturday night, Smith added another handful of plays to his highlight reel that’ll make scouts drool.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 18, 2020
The crazy thing is that’s probably not even the best back-of-the-end-zone, toe-tapping grab that Smith has this year (the one against Texas A&M was just absurd).
It’s now becoming more clear than ever — “the guy who caught 2nd-and-26” is already one of the best SEC receivers ever. By season’s end, there’s going to be a legitimate conversation about whether Smith is the G.O.A.T. of SEC receivers.
Now before you tell me it’s just the offense or that Julio Jones/Amari Cooper are vastly more worthy of that title, hear me out.
Anybody who believes that Smith is just running past dudes and catching perfect deep balls, well, see the aforementioned video. Or watch the way he comes back to the football against elite defenses like Georgia to prevent interceptions and move the chains. He runs routes at an exceptional level, he understands how to get separation and when the scheme dials up a 1-on-1 without safety help on the slant, forget about it. It’s 6.
If we’re being honest, hasn’t Smith done exactly what one would expect top-10 draft picks like Jones or Cooper to do in that offense? Classmates Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs were in that offense and they became top-15 picks, yet who was the leading receiver on that 2019 squad? Smith. In an offense with Jeudy, Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle, it was Smith who led that group in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Two of those guys are in the NFL. Jeudy, Ruggs, Jones and Cooper all were gone after 3 years. The same was true of other SEC all-time receiving leaders like Alshon Jeffery and Josh Reed, who rank No. 5 and No. 6, respectively. Smith, obviously, will have the advantage of a 4th year. But if you hit “pause” on his career through 38 games — that’s also the exact amount of games that Cooper played — compare these numbers:
In case you were wondering, Smith is No. 9 all-time in SEC receiving touchdowns and he’s No. 31 in receiving yards.
Of course, Smith’s career isn’t over. Right now, he’s 4 games into what looks like his best season yet.
In 4 games in 2020, Smith is averaging 9.5 catches, 121 yards and a touchdown. Pace that out over a 12-game season (we’re assuming Alabama will at least make the SEC Championship and play in a bowl game). On the season, that would be 114 catches for 1,449 yards and 12 touchdowns. Keep in mind that those numbers weren’t acquired against Group of 5 teams that suggest Smith is in for some massive regression. He did that against 4 SEC teams, 2 of which are ranked in the Associated Press top 10.
I say all that because Smith, if he were to keep that pace, would finish his career with some pretty lofty all-time SEC rankings:
- 232 catches (No. 5)
- 3,558 receiving yards (No. 2)
- 35 receiving touchdowns (No. 1)
That’s right. Smith is on pace to finish in the top 5 in all 3 of those categories (he’s only 201 yards behind pace for Jordan Matthews’ SEC all-time receiving yards record). Here’s the entire list of SEC receivers who finished their career in the top 5 of all 3 of those categories:
- Amari Cooper
That’s it. That’s the list.
Starting to see why the “G.O.A.T.” conversation isn’t so far-fetched?
For all the arguments that Cooper played in a somewhat limited passing offense in 2012 and 2013, he also didn’t have to share targets with anyone near the level Jeudy, Ruggs or Waddle. That’s not to say it makes Smith a better player than Cooper, but that can’t totally be ignored.
Whether or not he ends his career being considered as good as Cooper or Jones, what’s undeniable is Smith became a complete receiver. He could’ve easily gone to the NFL and cashed in after putting together a dominant junior season. Instead, he came back for his senior year. Now, he’s in position to end up all over the record books.
Smith doesn’t believe that stats show how good a player can be. He said he’s not motivated by reaching Cooper’s records, either. The soft-spoken, 175-pound Alabama wideout certainly has a chance to do that. How we’ll talk about him compared to some of the all-time greats remains to be seen. Maybe that could be determined by how Alabama’s 2020 season finishes.
All I know is “the guy who caught 2nd-and-26” will be just a fraction of Smith’s legacy.