Tua Tagovailoa knew where he was throwing from his first step back.
It was second-and-26. A teenage mistake by Tagovailoa put Alabama three downs from losing the 2018 national championship. Then, DeVonta Smith made “second-and-26” part of Alabama scripture.
Before Tagovailoa unleashed the 41-yard touchdown pass to Smith to beat Georgia in overtime, the true freshman had no catches.
“I said, ‘If it comes my way, I got you,’ ” Smith said in the celebratory locker room. “I wasn’t worried about dropping it.”
Smith would forever be an icon in Alabama. Soon, he will be a legend to all.
As the betting favorite (-200) to claim the Heisman Trophy — teammate/quarterback Mac Jones has the next best odds (+150) — Smith could become the first wide receiver since 1991 (Desmond Howard) to win college football’s most prestigious individual prize. Foreshadowing likely came Tuesday, when Smith became the first-ever wide receiver to be named the Associated Press Player of the Year, an award given to nine of the past 10 Heisman winners.
“He’s probably done as much this year for our team as any player that we’ve ever had,” coach Nick Saban said recently. “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. The guy is one of the most popular guys on the team and also one of the leaders of the team that everybody looks up to because of the example that he sets every day and how he goes about his work.”
Last season, the one-time Georgia commit led Alabama in receiving yards and touchdowns despite sharing the field with top-15 picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. This season, Smith became the most unstoppable player in the nation despite the midseason loss of fellow star wideout Jaylen Waddle.
Despite drawing additional attention from defenses, Smith led the country in receptions (98), receiving yards (1,511) and yards after catch (768), while ranking second in receiving touchdowns (17). He added one rushing touchdown and another score via punt return, while becoming the SEC’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (40) and Alabama’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,620). In the SEC Championship win over Florida, the future first-round pick set a school record with 15 receptions, totaling 184 yards and two touchdowns.
“The one thing that stands out is he’s got another gear,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. “When he hits his accelerator, he has a chance to separate. And the number of times you see that on film, you understand pretty quickly that every snap there’s an opportunity for them to score.”
Often, the opportunities arise unexpectedly. So many times, Smith simply elevates above defensive backs attached to his jersey, making one jaw-dropping and/or one-handed catch after another.
Still, No. 4 Notre Dame enters the College Football Playoff semifinal convinced it can slow the most unstoppable player on the country’s most unstoppable offense.
“I think we have a good game plan to hopefully contain him and show what we are made of on defense as well,” Irish safety Kyle Hamilton said. “I think we have a good group of players on defense that match up well with them.”
As Tagovailoa and Ruggs and Jeudy began preparing for the NFL draft, Smith announced he would return to school.
He wanted to earn his degree. He wanted another national championship.
“There’s a lot I have left to accomplish as a player and as a student, and I feel that my time is not up at Alabama,” Smith wrote in January. “I have unfinished business to take care of and the only way to do that is to stay one more year.”
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