Highlight grabs are nothing new for Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith
Most of the time when people ask Vincent Sanders if he can believe DeVonta Smith made a catch, the answer is yes. The receiver’s longtime mentor has seen him perform just about every highlight from juggling grabs to jumping over defenders.
“People don’t understand, DeVonta is just like that. It’s what he does,” Sanders explained. “He’s been making catches like that since he was in the ninth grade.”
Smith made another one of those grabs last week as he came down with the final touchdown in Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia.
During the play, quarterback Mac Jones delivered a pass from the Bulldogs’ 13-yard line to the back of the end zone. Smith, who was well-covered by Georgia defensive back Eric Stokes, did the rest. Falling backward the receiver out jumped his defender, high-pointing the ball before managing to get both feet down for the score.
“Those are quite the catches we see every day in practice,” Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain II said. “He works on his hands every day, but for a defensive back that’s really hard to guard, especially when as tight of coverage (is) on him. And for him to make that catch is unbelievable.”
Added receiver Jaylen Waddle: “That’s pretty regular for Smitty. We expect him to make those type of plays. We don’t consider them 50-50 balls when Smitty’s the one after it.”
That trust is certainly shared by Jones, who has targeted Smith 43 times over four games this season, resulting in 35 receptions for 440 yards and four touchdowns. None of those throws have been dropped by their intended receiver.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has caught all 38 of the “catchable balls” thrown his way this season. The senior is one of just three receivers in the nation who have come down with 30 or more receptions without dropping a pass, joining Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore (42) and Central Florida’s Marlon Williams (45). Of course, that stat doesn’t factor in the circus catches Smith routinely pulls off during games.
“When a guy looks at you in the eye and says, ‘Throw the ball to me. I don’t care if I’m triple-covered, throw it to me,’ it’s hard to turn that down,” Jones said following the win over Georgia. “He’s a (Michael) Jordan-level competitor, so if you can get him the ball, he’ll make the play.”
Sometimes it really does seem that simple. Throw the ball Smith’s way and watch him go to work.
Sanders still remembers a scrimmage from Smith’s sophomore year at Amite High School back in Louisiana. He and former Amite head coach Alden Foster were both on the field as the young receiver carved up Walker High School’s secondary play after play.
In a desperate attempt to stop the carnage, the Walker head coach elected to line up his cornerback and safety side by side, essentially forming a wall to slow down the receiver.
Sanders just laughed.
“Coach Foster is like, ‘Oh, so that’s what you are going to do?’” Sanders recalled. “It was a scrimmage, so the coaches are right behind the offense on the field. Coach Foster yells over to our quarterback and goes ‘Throw it to DeVonta.’ He’s yelling it, and the defense can hear him because he’s right there on the field.
“Man, the quarterback threw the ball up, Tay high-pointed the ball over both of them. We just know if you throw the ball anywhere in his vicinity he’s coming down with it.”
Smith’s catch against Georgia last week didn’t really move the needle for Sanders. Watching the former basketball star out jump opponents almost doesn’t seem fair at this point.
Although, even Sanders was taken back by Smith’s acrobatic touchdown grab against Texas A&M earlier this month.
Similar to the play against Georgia, Jones lofted a pass to the back of the end zone, creating a jump ball for his receiver. However, this time Smith not only out jumped Aggies defensive back Jaylon Jones but also twisted his body while managing to somehow get a toe down inside the boundary.
“It’s been a while since he shocked me on a catch because I’ve seen them all,” Sanders said. “That one right there shocked me. I’m going to be honest with you, the way he contorted his body to get his foot in, I don’t know how he did it.
“I asked him, I said ‘Tay, look I’ve seen you do a lot of stuff.’ I said ‘How did you know where you were? And how did you know how to move your body like that?’”
Smith’s response: “I just had a feeling.”
Smith’s intuition comes from a relentless level of preparation. His daily routine of catching 100 balls from the JUGS machine after practice was recently featured on a video released by Alabama.
“I never miss a day,” Smith said in the clip. “It comes down to it’s my job coming out here catching passes, getting open. That’s why I work so hard. At the end of the day, I have a job and that’s what it all comes down to.”
The 100 after-practice catches are lightwork for Smith. On weeks when Sanders drives up from Louisiana to cut Smith’s hair, the receiver has been known to get in two or three bonus sessions per day.
“When I come over there, I know I’m going to work all day,” Sanders said. “We’re going to be on that JUGS machine all day. I know how to run the thing now because he’s going to get his 100 balls in after practice. If I’m there, we’re going to go back that night.”
Smith’s work on the JUGS machine extends back to his camping days as a recruit. After teams left the field for practice, he’d sneak back in to snag a few extra balls with Sanders. That hasn’t changed one bit following his ascension to stardom. Sanders remembers one recent visit when Smith took him into Alabama’s indoor facility at 10 p.m. for another go with the JUGS machine.
“He just gets bored,” Sanders said. “And he’s always looking to find ways to get better.”
Late nights are nothing new for Sanders. The Louisiana barber has connections with several Division I programs and serves as a mentor to dozens of kids across the nation, staying up most nights breaking down their film and filtering it out to college coaches.
Trips to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to visit Smith leave even less time for sleep as he and the receiver stay up nitpicking game footage into the early hours of the morning.
One night, Sanders failed to grasp a certain concept Smith was trying to convey. After attempting to explain things on a tablet, the receiver eventually got fed up and made a midnight run to Walmart to buy an HDMI cable so he could display the play better on the TV.
“He can look and see all the holes in the defense,” Sanders said. “We just started talking, and the next thing you know we were breaking down film at 1 a.m. in the morning.”
Sanders doesn’t attend Alabama games in person but rather records them on television, texting Smith clips where he can improve as he sees them. The receiver has grown to trust his mentor’s critiques due to their honesty. Sanders puts it a bit more colorfully, stating, “I don’t sugar-coat shit,” while adding that he makes sure to add a negative highlight every time to keep Smith grounded.
Although lately that task has become a bit more difficult.
“With DeVonta it’s hard, but I’ll always find something he can correct,” Sanders said. “It might be something like he’s blocking and turned his head back. I’ll just have to find something to complain about, maybe make it up, just to keep him even.”
In reality, Smith is his own harshest critic. Even after his game-winning touchdown in the national championship game against Georgia in 2018, he was almost too busy obsessing over missed opportunities he had in the game to enjoy the moment.
That pursuit of perfection played a part in Smith’s decision to return to Alabama for his senior year. Following last season, Sanders told the receiver to make a pros and cons list about leaving for the NFL draft. After praying over the decision, two factors kept Smith in Tuscaloosa for another year.
“Just really getting my degree and wanting to come back and finish things the right way,” he said during the offseason. “I didn’t like the way we did things last year and the way we finished. Just coming back to finish things the right way this year.”
Smith completed the first half of that goal this summer as he earned his bachelor’s degree from Alabama in July. As for the second part of that mission, he’s making the most out of his final season with the Tide.
One highlight catch at a time.