AMITE CITY, La. — When the bell rings at Amite High School, most students are moving toward their next class.
Devonta Smith is no exception, but he does take a longer path.
After the bell sounds, the five-star wide receiver drops to the floor to do 10 push-ups. If he catches a glimpse of his reflection, it’s 20, and that’s been the unbreakable routine since August.
As May rapidly approaches, Smith’s double-digit push-up routine has become just that — routine — and while it may force others to raise an eyebrow, it barely comes as a surprise to those who know him best.
“That’s a once in a lifetime player,” Smith’s high school coach, Zephaniah Powell, told SEC Country.
“You don’t get them like that much … with his mindset, with his work ethic, with the way he runs routes and puts time into practice. To him, somebody is always working, and he has to be better than him. He gets every minute of work in that he possibly can. That comes from wanting to be the best.”
Being the best is all Smith wants, and he’s inching closer almost daily.
In the past few weeks, Smith, Louisiana’s No. 1 wide receiver, has been elevated to five-star status.
That was one of two goals that Smith set out for himself, both of which he checked off his list in the month of April.
But make no mistake: being a five-star is merely a rating. For Smith, the work is far from done.
“I feel the same way I felt when I didn’t have it,” a smiling Smith said. “It was one of my goals that I wanted to accomplish. That, and to get to Nike’s “The Opening.” But it didn’t bother me if I didn’t get it because I was going to do the same thing with or without it.”
A ‘Mama’s boy’
Where Smith’s impeccable work ethic stems from remains a mystery.
Powell’s best guess is his mother.
Smith is one of two sons raised in a church-going household. He was raised to lead, which is evident in every aspect of his everyday life.
That’s why Smith has the ability to touch others the way that does, says Powell, who summed it up by calling his all-world receiver a “Mama’s boy.”
“He wants to give off a good impression to whoever he’s in contact with,” Powell said. “Young, old. Coach, non-coach. It’s a tribute to his mother … He’s a role model to his younger brother, his classmates, his peers and everyone else that he comes in contact with.”
Smith’s personality has helped shape the work ethic that has helped him quickly rise into one of the nation’s premier talents. It’s also laid a foundation for the way he carries himself on the gridiron.
The irony is that he plays wide receiver.
Some of the best receivers to play at the high school, college or professional level have been hard-pressed to hide their flamboyant side. Strong players with even stronger personalities are typical traits for those who catch passes for a living.
But not Smith …
“I’ve never seen it before,” said Amite defensive coordinator Chris Gordon. “There’s that diva mentality. I’ve watched other kids, coached other kids, seen the talent pool. With football, you’re competing, but he does it with his play. That’s one of the qualities I like so much. If you push his buttons, you’ll see it, though. He has fight in him. He’s Mr. Nice Guy, but he’s an animal at the same time, but he lets his play do the talking.”
That transformative demeanor has naturally led Smith into a leadership role both on the Amite football team and in the community.
In between making visits to LSU, Alabama, Baylor and Florida State, among many others, Smith creates time on the weekends to mentor the younger wide receivers on the team who look to follow in his grand footsteps.
“Everybody looks up to him,” said Powell. “He’s a coach himself. He’s coaching the younger receivers. On the weekends, they go to a local park. He brings the ladder, the cones, and they have their own wide receiver skill session with no balls, just working on footwork. He’s a team leader.”
A notch above the competition
Smith began his high school career at cornerback, earning All-State honors at the position in 2014 as a sophomore.
In 2015, he made the switch to full-time wide receiver, which certainly caught the attention of his coaches.
Gordon had seen Smith find success defending wide receivers every Friday night. One source told SEC Country that Smith had shown enough to one day be a first-round NFL pick at cornerback.
Once the coaches got a glimpse of what Smith could do when he was on the offensive side of the ball, no one couldn’t find an argument to sway him back to the defense.
That same source told SEC Country Smith remained a first-round pick … at any position he elected to play.
“He has the ability to take any ball he catches to the house,” Gordon said. “That’s the thing that makes him special. He has a slender build, so you don’t recognize how physical he can be. He’s just a tough, hard-nosed, hard-working kid.
“Skillset-wise, I think of guys like Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, the way their build and the way they attack the game. He’s very fluid, very smooth in and out of his routes. He high-points the ball. When you talk to other people, it’s about how smooth he is. He might run a 4.5 on the clock, but on the field he’s leaving people. When he’s on the field on Friday night, he’s playing against himself. It’s not about the opposition.”
Devonta Smith … Going deep ? pic.twitter.com/OUbUozB6iO
— Sam Spiegelman (@samspiegs) April 21, 2016
— Sam Spiegelman (@samspiegs) April 21, 2016
In 2015, Powell was hired as Amite’s head coach after coaching against Smith at Jewel Sumner (La.) High School.
Upon taking the job, Powell called his future quarterback, then his new No. 1 wide receiver. He knew precisely the talent he was inheriting, and couldn’t wait to get to work with them.
“I coached against (Smith) for two years, so I knew he was going to be special,” Powell said. “He opens up so much other stuff for everybody. It’s like having Shaq (O’Neal). If you double down on him, you got Kobe (Bryant) over here, Robert Horry over there. He’s been a blessing.”
Perhaps no one is more appreciative of seeing Smith switch to wide receiver than his quarterback, Elijah Walker.
The tandem have played together since their freshmen seasons and are now preparing for a promising senior campaign together.
Walker admires the way Smith dominates on the field and the way he carries himself away from it, and wouldn’t trade his top target for anybody else.
“He’s reliable. I know that 95 percent of the time, he’s going to catch the ball, so I feel real comfortable throwing it to him,” said Walker. “I feel like no one can hold him, but he isn’t the type to let it go to his head. He stays humble and he works hard.”
LSU, Alabama on a level playing field for Smith
While Smith prepares for his senior season, it’s been hard to ignore the influx of schools vying to land the newly minted five-star prospect.
LSU and Alabama are among a host of SEC schools and national college football powers courting the elite wide receiver.
Those two SEC powers, along with every other school, have been placed on a level playing field at this point in Smith’s recruitment as he plans to take a step back in the coming months.
“In a few weeks, I’m going to put out a top 10 and narrow things down,” Smith said. “In the weeks going by, the list is going to get shorter.”
And that means Smith can breathe a sigh of relief.
As hard of a worker as the receiver is and as good at his craft as he is, the pressure of the recruiting process has taken its toll.
However, Smith has combatted that natural anxiety by remaining calm, cool and collected, just as he does on Friday nights.
It’s been impressive to watch, his defensive coordinator said, admitting he couldn’t handle this kind of situation with as much maturity as Smith has when he was 17 years old.
“You wish you had a team full of him,” Gordon said. “He leads with his mouth. He leads with his actions. It’s like he’s been there before. It’s nothing new to him. It’s all about business. Guys that are grown men aren’t mentally there. He’s been there and done that.”
Smith has maintained a level approach to the entire situation, which his coach attributes to both his humility and high intelligence.
In making the decision, remember that Smith is not only doing it for himself, but his family. That includes his mother, his little brother, as well as his quarterback, teammates and the coaches that all admire him.
Indubitably, Smith has given all of Amite plenty of confidence in his future.
“Being in a small town, a small community, with all these people coming at him, he’s going to see a lot of colleges and able to go on a lot of visits, and it’s a great experience,” Powell said. “He’s learning about the colleges and college life in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa and Waco and Tallahassee. For him, it’s like ‘Wow!’ This is all new, and in seeing all the new stuff, he’s making a mental Rolodex of things. That’s the main reason why everyone is on an even playing field at the moment.”
Sam Spiegelman covers LSU football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Tigers Stadium.