Butch Jones strolls around Haslam Field with a microphone perched in his right hand, usually reserved for bellowing out instruction or calling out a player who’s done something wrong.
On Tuesday, Jones used it to give a little praise to a guy who’s craved it since missing ten games with a high ankle sprain in 2014.
Josh Smith ran a crisp route during individual drills and turned to dig a low Josh Dobbs pass out of the turf. Jones quickly put the mic up to his mouth and shouted to his wide receiver.
“Josh Smith, where have you been? I haven’t seen that all spring,” Jones quipped before giving his wide out a fist bump and a smile. It may have been a backhanded compliment, but the moment wasn’t lost on Smith, who has worked tirelessly to hear something like that again after having ankle surgery Nov. 6.
“It felt good because I haven’t heard that in a while,” he said after practice. “I was working, conditioning a lot to finally get that respect back from him, but I know he always has my back and I have his back.”
The redshirt sophomore had a career-high five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma in the third game of the season when he was forced to leave the game with a high ankle sprain. That ostensibly minor injury morphed into a major problem when the ankle wouldn’t heal properly, and surgery set him back for the rest of the year.
Now Smith is back in the rotation and conditioned enough to make an impact in a deep wide receiving corps for the Vols.
“I felt like (Tuesday) was one of my best days of spring and I’m actually kind of feeling like my old self again,” he said. “It actually feels good, so I’m kind of excited. I feel like I took that step forward. I feel like I’m getting there.”
Catching up to the speed of the game again was tough for Smith, who lost a year of strength and conditioning while his ankle healed. But if Tuesday was any indication, the 6-1, 205-pound receiver looks ready to contribute right away.
“I thought Josh Smith had his best practice that he has had all year — catching the football, route running, so that was great to see,” Jones said.
"He came out and he attacked things. Obviously, he is in better football condition. I think that is a byproduct of overtime, of practice. He played with confidence, caught the football and he was able to advance the football.”
The gruesome injury that plagued his 2014 season is finally behind him. Smith isn’t even thinking about it anymore, because, he says, bad thoughts usually lead to bad things happening.
With the ample amount of snaps he’s taken this spring and his ability to get back to a conditioning level conducive to Jones’ fast-tempo offensive pace, Smith is feeling better than he ever has.
That will surely lead to even more praise from the man with the microphone in the fall.
“It feels like old times,” he said. “It’s just the reps that I’ve had with Dobbs and the repetition with him and just working in the spring, getting our rhythm back and our chemistry back. It’s starting to feel good.”
Josh Smith on his rehab process