ARLINGTON and AUSTIN, Texas — As the Texas Longhorns offense seeks to create more explosive plays in 2019 after finishing last season as one of two programs in the FBS without a play of 50 yards or more, incoming freshman wide receiver Jake Smith is one of the most intriguing potential answers to that problem.
In the last year, Smith has produced ridiculous senior highlights, earned recognition as the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, and received plaudits from his new teammates immediately after arriving on campus.
Smith has already answered one of the biggest questions about his ability — he arrived on Austin without any verified testing numbers or track times, leaving concerns about whether he’s as fast as he looks on film.
Consider that concern answered as well as possible to this point. At Big 12 Media Days, head coach Tom Herman said that Smith posted the best testing numbers of the summer enrollees aside from safety Tyler Owens, one of the fastest prep players in the country.
Even cornerback Kenyatta Watson II, who posted a 4.50 40-yard dash, a 4.12-second shuttle, and a 45.2-inch vertical leap in high school, didn’t match the testing numbers put up by Smith.
In Arlington with Herman, junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger called Jake Smith “freaky fast.”
“Both of those guys, as you mentioned, Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington — freakish athletes,” junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said at Big 12 Media Days. “Definitely pass the eye test when they’re running around, moving around, just the takeoff speed, the explosiveness, the elusiveness, the quickness, it’s all there.”
Smith hasn’t had a race with senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, arguably the fastest player on the team — Duvernay ran a 4.38 40-yard dash and 10.27 100 meters in high school — so Ehlinger’s not sure which player is faster.
“He’s extremely fast, but he’s also extremely quick,” Ehlinger told Burnt Orange Nation when describing Smith. “It’s not just a straight-line speed, it’s a quick twitch and he’s still carrying that speed.”
So tentatively put Smith in the sub-4.5 range with a potential shuttle around 4.10 or better, both results that would legitimately qualify him as a freakish athlete. Unfortunately, Herman didn’t recall Smith’s exact testing times when asked about them by Burnt Orange Nation. There’s still some mystery in that regard.
Regardless of the exact testing times posted by Smith this summer, his speed is already drawing attention on the other side of the ball — sophomore safety Caden Sterns said that he tries to go against Smith in one-on-ones because Sterns wants to test himself against the fastest players.
“Just having him on offense is going to make them better, as well as myself and the rest of the DBs. I’m excited to see him play. He’s going to be very special here, too,” Sterns said.
Meanwhile, the developing connection between Ehlinger and Smith will help define the extent to which the freshman wide receiver can actually make an impact on the field.
“It’s been going well,” Ehlinger said of their rapport. “He’s a great kid, extremely intelligent. He’s been a delight to be around — he’s two lockers down from me, so I’ve gotten to chat with him a fair amount and he’s been coming along really well. He’s killing the workouts, so I’m excited for him.”
After the start of preseason camp, Herman said that his first impression of Smith was that his speedy freshman wide receiver keeps his mouth shut and works hard. Like Whittington, Smith also has a high level of aptitude for learning — Ehlinger said that he picked up the playbook in two days.
More practically, there’s a significant difference between Smith and last season’s slot receiver, a 6’4, 225-pounder with some of the best ball skills in college football, Lil’Jordan Humphrey. While Humphrey benefited from elite change-of-direction ability for someone of his size — he was an extremely effective high school running back, after all — he didn’t have the pure speed or the twitchiness of Smith.
So how will Ehlinger adjust to having a slot receiver who is four inches shorter, 25 pounds lighter, and so much faster and quicker?
“I think you can make either/or work because it definitely changes the throw, but both of them can be done and I think where you see LJ go down the field, but he wasn’t necessarily a 4.3, but he was a 6’4 guy, so he could go get the ball. You just put it in his area and he’s going to go get it.” Ehlinger said.
“But now you’ve got speedier slots in Josh Moore and Jake Smith and some other guys and if that safety takes one wrong step, he’s got him beat by five yards. So it’s just a different throw — I don’t think it’s a bad thing in any sort of way. Obviously, would love to have LJ, but the adjustment could be just a big play down the field.”
So that’s the expectation — Texas likes to run four verticals and it’s one of Ehlinger’s favorite route concepts. In 2019, the Longhorns will have the option to run Smith at safeties or nickel backs tasked with trying to keep up with him. And that may be extremely difficult.
“I love four verticals, so it’s really hard for defenses to stop because there’s always an answer, whether it’s down the field or a check down,” Ehlinger said.
The biggest impediment to get Smith getting to run some of those vertical routes at the moment is the rise of sophomore Brennan Eagles to the starting role at flanker and the subsequent move of senior Devin Duvernay from that position into the H role that Smith also occupies.
So far, the early returns on that experiment are positive due to Duvernay’s strength and own level of football intelligence that sharpened his learning curve, according to Herman. Smith did draw a positive comparison to Duvernay, though — a year after the senior caught every pass in his vicinity, Ehlinger compared Smith’s strong hands to those of Duvernay. Apparently Smith is catching every pass in his vicinity, too.
There’s also another area where all the slot receivers this year like Duvernay, Smith, and Moore will have to step up and that’s on third downs. Humphrey caught 31 passes on third down last season, converting 25 of them. In total, Ehlinger converted on 49 third-down throws, so Humphrey’s departure means a great deal in that regard — his early entrance into the NFL means that the Horns will have to replace more than 50 percent of the team’s third-down conversions through the air.
And that’s why the connection between Ehlinger and his slot receivers could be so important — Humphrey was his primary security blanket last season because of his height, physicality, and ball skills.
Stepping up in that area will be a team-wide effort across the wide receivers corps, but if Smith can make up for a handful of Humphrey’s conversions while providing more big plays, then the Texas offense should receive an overall boost at the position.