UT and USC In Horse Race For a Stud

Will PT, UT and the allure of Southern football be enough for the Vols to outdistance home-state Southern Cal in the recruiting war for all-world wide receiver Steve Smith?

That's an abridgment of an intriguing chase that has developed for the prospect many regard as the premier play-maker in the Class of 2003. And it's Tennessee's immediate need for such a prospect that has given the Vols a fighting chance for Smith's signature.

Texas, Notre Dame, Oregon and Michigan have all made runs at the 6-1, 175-pound, William Howard Taft High School sensation, who has 4.45 speed and is ranked No. 7 nationally at wide receiver, but only Tennessee is currently left standing as a threat to the Trojans.

Inside Tennessee confirmed that fact with the source himself this morning.

"That's pretty much the way it is," said Smith. "I might visit some other schools, but it's really between Tennessee and USC."

The turnaround for Tennessee came when Smith made his official visit to Knoxville on Nov. 9 for the Miami game. Despite a one-sided setback, Smith was blown away by the game day atmosphere on The Hill and the opportunity he saw to gain early playing time.

The impression was so strong that he almost immediately eliminated Texas, which he visited on Oct. 4, and elevated Tennessee to equal status with resurgent USC. Those feelings endured through a visit to last week's big victory by Southern Cal over Notre Dame.

In fact, the passion and support demonstrated by Tennessee fans in a disappointing defeat may have well helped the Vols gain ground in comparison to the more laid back audience that normally attends college football games in southern California.

"That's big time football and I loved it," Smith said of his UT visit. "The football facilities and the crowd at the game are the two things that really stand out. It's a total college town there and the people love football. I was also impressed with the academic support there and I definitely think Tennessee is a place I could go to."

Smith is a multidimensional talent capable of starring on either side of the ball at the next level. His production at the high school level speaks volumes about his potential in college.

During his sophomore and junior seasons, Smith caught an incredible 184 passes for 3,209 yards and 30 touchdowns. As a junior, he had 91 receptions for 1,612 yards and 12 touchdowns while, on defense, he intercepted a school record 12 passes in full-time duty at cornerback.

This season, he has compiled 65 receptions for over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns. Splitting reps between safety and corner on defense, Smith has intercepted six passes. Furthermore, he's a two-time All-City basketball player with Division I talent.

Many experts believe Smith is underrated as the nation's No. 7 wide receiver prospect and think he may be a better football player than St. Bonaventure's Whitney Lewis who is rated No. 1 due his superior size and speed.

"We've said it many times before, but this is possibly the deepest year for wide receivers in the West Coast in the last decade." writes Steve Biggins of Student Sports magazine, who is also The Insiders west region recruiting director. "The talent from top to bottom is incredible and several players who didn't even make our top 25 list could have been top 10 in other years.

"Whitney Lewis is still our top guy and although an excellent argument can be made in favor of Steve Smith, we just feel as a prospect, Lewis is unmatched by any player in this region. He has an NFL body right now, tremendous speed and off-the-charts athleticism."

Biggins, who has seen Smith play on numerous occasions is impressed by his ability to make plays on both sides of the football, particularly at wide receiver.

"Smith continued his dominant ways on both sides of the ball this year and there is still some debate as to what side of the ball he'll play in college," he said. "He has great cover skills, but he's such a play-maker with the ball in his hands we're going to keep him at receiver. Smith's ability to catch the ball in traffic and make the acrobatic reception is the best we've ever seen on a high school player."

Smith said he's willing to play defensive back in college, but notes that both Tennessee and USC are seeking his services as a pass catcher and play-maker. He can see himself playing at either school, but for different reasons.

"I'll play DB, it doesn't matter," he said. "I like Tennessee and USC. USC is real explosive, I like the way they open up the offense, they're really exciting and fun to watch. I can see myself playing there.

"At Tennessee the atmosphere and people are just incredible. Tennessee is just in need of big-play receivers right now, so that¹s another reason why I like them."

UT secondary coach Larry Slade has been recruiting Smith for the Vols, and he¹s done an effective job of convincing the senior standout of Tennessee's need at wide receiver.

"Coach (Larry) Slade is recruiting me," Smith said. "He's cool. I'd like to play early and Tennessee uses a lot of young players. Casey (Clausen) went there and started as a freshman."

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders is headed to the west coast this week to try and further impress how much of an early impact Smith could make with the Vols.

Of course, after personally witnessing the Vols score only three points against Miami, Smith probably doesn't need a lot more convincing.

Right now. it looks like a horse race between Tennessee and USC, or the dark horse vs. the Trojan horse.

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