COLUMBIA, S.C. – Jamari Smith put his foot in the ground twice and just like that he was off for a 52-yard gain.
It was the biggest highlight of the performance he turned in back on Nov. 23, 2013, which featured his first touchdown and 100-yard game, as he got his first opportunity to really show what he could do as a freshman running back pushed into action thanks to a bevy of injuries.
Almost three years later, Smith now holds the nickname of “the journeyman,” as his South Carolina teammates have aptly pegged him. That’s what happens when you play three positions in less than four years. But now it looks like he finally is settling in to his current spot as a wide receiver – a welcome sight for Smith and the Gamecocks.
“It feels like I’ve found my home and they are treating me like I’m family and everything like that,” Smith said. “They love to compete. It’s a group that loves to compete and better each other.”
These days, that 100-yard game as a true freshman feels like a distant memory. The 5-foot-10 Smith confessed it feels like it happened a long time ago, saying he wished he had more times to do that again. At the time, it seemed like it would lead to a great career as a running back.
“I thought it would, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Smith said. “Now, I’m just trying to make it happen again.”
That’s the positivity the Jacksonville, Fla., native said he has tried to maintain through the moments of frustration in recent seasons. He was moved to cornerback after that initial outburst in his most significant action of his career to date, as coaches sought to find the best place to fit the talented athlete. But a broken foot – a “big downfall,” Smith said – in fall camp in 2014 derailed any potential for that season. He was mainly a special teams contributor in 2015, while he remained mostly on the defensive side of the ball.
He’s back on the playmaking side of the ball now as a junior, a place he is comfortable with even though he had never really envisioned playing wide receiver until spring ball rolled around. He already sees why he could be a good fit for a unit in dire need of big-play threats.
“To be honest with you, it’s a great position,” Smith said. “I love it. It’s a way for me to get big plays. It’s a way for all of us to get big plays.”
Smith’s opportunities thus far are coming in the slot, where he is getting first-team reps through fall camp as co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is searching for impact players.
“He has done a good job,” Roper said. “He’s an inexperienced guy. He has made some contact area catches – some tough catches. He has shown he has got some physicalness to him. He’s shown he is still learning how to play wide receiver. He is an older guy, which helps.”
Admittedly, Smith is still learning a lot about the new position. He talked about trying to perfect the craft of playing wide receiver and working to be on the same page with the quarterbacks.
Smith did show flashes in the spring, as he capped the first one under Will Muschamp with a six-catch, 54-yard performance in the spring game. But the fundamental part of the game takes time and it’s that area that Roper said Smith is working through.
“In every offense, there’s a lot of memorization,” Roper said. “You have to memorize what you’re doing. He has done a good job of that. His is fundamentals. It’s going out and lining up and releases on press coverage, releases on second levels, releases on third levels, route running, controlling his body, sticking his foot in the ground to change.
“It’s just different than doing it in the backfield. His is a little bit more fundamental than it is just memorization.”
Muschamp gave Smith “okay” marks on Wednesday after the first two days of practice, but then said Smith is “a guy that we are excited about.”
“He needs to continue to step up for us at receiver,” the first-year South Carolina coach said. “We need some playmakers at that position.”
After three years of being a journeyman, Smith has reason to just be happy to be at a position instead of bouncing around once again. Now he’s looking to take advantage of the opportunity he has in front of him.
“I’ve been moving back, offense, defense and back,” Smith said. “But I came here to contribute to the team to the best of my abilities and to help the team win and everything like that. I really didn’t have that mindset like, ‘I don’t want to move again.’ I’m just trying to help.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.