Vols Eye Arkansas Player of the Year

You won't find him listed among the nation's top 10 wide receivers. He's not the biggest, the fastest or the strongest pass catcher the Vols are recruiting this season, but over the next four years Bret Smith might just prove to the best wideout in the stellar Class of 2003.<p>

Smith, a 6-2, 175-pound star athlete with 4.6 speed, isn't someone you'd pick out of a lineup when asked to identify the prospect most likely to succeed, but put him in the starting lineup of a critical game and he shines like a $20 gold piece in a pile of old pennies.

As a junior, Smith (5-11, 175, 4.5) compiled one of the most productive seasons in the nation, catching an incredible 103 passes for 1889 yards (18.3 yards per catch) and 23 touchdowns to lead Warren to a 15-0 record and the state championship. That averages out to nearly seven catches for 130 yards and 1.6 TDs per game. In one game against perennial state pigskin power Nashville, he had 12 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns.

He skipped the Nike camps over the spring and football camps last summer in order to better promote a team concept at Warren. The decision may have cost Smith (rated the nation's No. 20 receiver by The Insiders) some publicity and rating points, but it paid off when the Lumberjacks went 14-1 and captured their second consecutive Class-3A state title.

In keeping with his unselfish approach to athletic competition, Smith switched to quarterback to start the 2002 season until the Lumberjacks could develop a younger signal caller. Once the underclassman was ready to step behind the center, Smith went back to wide receiver and picked up where he left off as a junior.

Smith had only one reception through the first four games of the season. but finished the campaign with 62 receptions for 1,143 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also completed 58-of-117 pass attempts for 1,110 yards and 11 TDs while just barely missing the 1,000-yard mark in rushing.

But it was during the playoffs that Smith took his game to another level, catching 34 passes for 742 yards and six touchdowns in five do-or-die showdowns. Smith entered the championship contest with a badly sprain ankle and a severe limp, but managed to haul in 12 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. In the semifinals against Prescott, he caught seven passes for 207 yards and a touchdown.

"It never mattered to him about being a quarterback or receiver," said Warren head coach Bo Hembree. "He was going to do whatever it took to win. Everything we've ever asked him to do, he's done. That says a lot for a kid who was the highest-recruited receiver (in Arkansas) coming into the football season and then moves to quarterback.

"He never worried about records. Those meant nothing to him. What meant something to him was winning the state championship."

Smith's attitude, aptitude and output was plenty to capture Arkansas' Offensive Player of the Year award. It was also more than enough to impress opposing coaches who had to face him this season.

"I thought he was the best player in the state of Arkansas, probably last year and this year," said Benton High School head coach Marc Jones. "He's just that dominating to me. There's not many guys that you can say when they're in high school, if they stay healthy, they can go to the NFL. But man I think he's got those kind of skills."

Star City High head coach Buck James concurred with Jones after watching Smith connect on 8-of-18 passes for 92 yards and catching six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns against his squad.

"If he doesn't play on Sunday, it's just because he has some bad luck," James said. "That's what I think. I think if you're looking at Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, guys like that when they first started out, they can't be any different than he was when he was a senior in high school. This guy has all the physical tools, and he seems to have the mental make-up for it.

"You can't even talk about comparing him to anybody else in the state of Arkansas that's ever played receiver as far as what I've seen and I've been doing this for 16 years."

Smith, who doesn't currently list a favorite, is considering Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi after also entertaining offers from Michigan and UCLA. He will visit the Vols on Jan. 17 along with teammate Roshaun Fellows who has already committed to Tennessee.

Incidentally, Smith was named the state's sophomore of the year in 2000 which was the same season that tailback Cedric Houston was capturing Player of the Year honors in Arkansas while leading Clarendon to a state title.

As UT fans know: Houston eventually signed with the Vols and was Tennessee's leading rusher last season as a sophomore. In recent years the Vols have also recruited three lineman out of Arkansas — Leslie Ratliff, Reggie Coleman and Greg Jones. Ratliff and Coleman became starters in the offensive line by their sophomore years and Jones is a good bet to start in the defensive line as a sophomore next season.

With that kind of success rate recruiting players from Arkansas, Smith and Fellows could prove to be valuable additions to the Vols by the 2004 season.

In fact, if Smith decides to follow Fellows to Tennessee, he might not wait that long to make a difference.

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