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Texas WR Jake Smith already emerging as an impact player

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The speedy freshman is playing behind the team’s most productive receiver so far, but that hasn’t stopped him from making his own mark.

Texas v Rice Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

HOUSTON — No one has caught more passes through the first three games of the 2019 season than Texas Longhorns wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who is tied with two other players for the national lead.

So how is it that the Longhorns have another emerging star at the same position as Duvernay, who moved inside after playing flanker under head coach Tom Herman the last two seasons?

In a wide-open Texas offense this season, there are plenty of passes to go around and two blowout victories have afforded freshman wide receiver Jake Smith plenty of opportunities early in his career. And Smith is taking advantage.

With 11 catches for 126 yards and three touchdowns, Smith is second on the team in receptions behind Duvernay, third in receiving yards, and tied for first in touchdown receptions.

“Yeah, my confidence is steadily rising, I would say,” Smith said after beating Rice. “After the LSU game, I felt really good and La Tech, too. I’m just building on that confidence every week.”

As Smith continues to make plays, one emerging question is whether Texas needs to find ways to get him on the field with Duvernay. On Monday, Herman was asked if the Longhorns needed to create a package with both players on the field.

“Why do we need to?” Herman responded.

Pressed on it, Herman said that Texas would consider it — Duvernay could move back outside at times to allow Smith to see the field, but sophomore Brennan Eagles has three touchdown catches and the longest play this season, so he’s earning his playing time. At the X position, senior Collin Johnson often demands double coverage, which opens up chances for the other receivers. If his hamstring injury continues to linger, however, Smith is arguably the team’s fourth best wide receiver right now.

Even though he’s only been on campus since the summer.

“He was not an early enrollee, so his first taste of college football was training camp, and it hit him like a shovel to the face, but he made it through those dog days of training camp,” Herman said.

The Longhorns head coach also credited the offensive staff for not panicking when injuries hit the running back room. After averaging 7.4 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground as a high school senior last season, Smith was an obvious choice to make the move.

Since none of the injuries to the running backs were season-ending, however, the staff decided to prioritize Smith’s development over a short-term fix at running back, moving freshman quarterback Roschon Johnson to the position instead.

“I don’t think anybody was standing on the table one way or the other, pounding the table,” Herman said. “We were talking through best scenarios and felt like Roschon had the body type, Roschon rushed for I don’t know how many yards he did in high school, so he knew the offense, and even though he had never played that position, the cost benefit was much more slanted to benefit Roschon’s side than Jake’s.”

So Smith stayed at wide receiver to keep his growth there from becoming stunted.

There’s still plenty of room for that growth, too.

“We still keep it fairly simple for him — we don’t ask him to memorize the entire offense just yet,” Herman said.

Since Smith is still adjusting to what he can handle on the field, it makes sense that the staff hasn’t created a package for him to play with Duvernay — he’s valuable enough right now as a backup to keep Duvernay fresh and inexperienced enough that he’s not yet ready to handle a much more substantial role.

There are similarities between the two players, as well. In fact, junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s first comparison of Smith at Big 12 Media Days was to Duvernay, who didn’t drop a catchable pass last season and is known for his strong hands.

Smith flashed that strength and his ability to concentrate against LSU in the second half on a 3rd and 10 touchdown catch from 20 yards out run from an empty formation. There was only a small window for Ehlinger to find Smith, as Tigers safety Todd Harris, Jr. had good coverage on the play, but Ehlinger found it and Smith used those strong hands to control the football.

Against Rice in Houston last weekend, Smith caught two touchdown catches, including a 53-yarder that showcased his devastating speed in the open field. The speed of Smith’s cut was remarkable — as Ehlinger mentioned at Big 12 Media Days, Smith can carry his speed through his breaks, a rare talent.

“I’m trying not to think too much out on the field,” Smith said after the game. “I knew that I had one-on-one [coverage] and I knew that I just had to jab him outside to get open, so that’s what I did.”

Despite the challenge of hitting a receiver with Smith’s speed in stride, Ehlinger placed the ball perfectly, a promising development for a quarterback whose downfield accuracy has been spotty at times during his career. The biggest takeaway? Ehlinger and Smith are starting to develop some chemistry.

“We’re definitely getting our timing down,” Smith said. “I’m still learning, obviously, the playbook and everything, but I feel like I have most of it down pretty well, so that was a struggle a little bit in fall camp. But I’m really getting the hang of it now.”

So far, the focus on not thinking too much has allowed Smith to feel comfortable out on the field. After all, it’s still the same game.

“Football just feels like football to me,” Smith said. “I was kind of surprised after the first game how I was expecting something so much different and at the end of the day, it’s just football, the game that I’ve been playing for so long.”

It’s been a meteoric rise for Smith, who suffered a broken tibia playing baseball as a freshman at Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale, then broke his arm that fall playing football. As a junior, Smith said he realized that he could play at the college level — he didn’t think it was a mistake when offers started to flood in from around the country. Gaining 1,055 yards through the air and another 1,135 yards on the ground tends to have that effect.

Texas offered following an unofficial visit to Austin in December 2017, then surged into the lead in Smith’s recruitment following a return trip for the Orange-White game the following by April. An official visit sealed the deal and Smith committed to the Longhorns in early June over more than 30 offers from the top programs in the country.

Then he won the National Gatorade Player of the Year award after a monster senior season that included 2,349 all-purpose yards and 39 touchdowns. He even added 4.5 sacks and averaged over 40 yards per punt.

The obvious comparison for Smith is to Longhorn legend Jordan Shipley, the standout slot receiver whose connection with Colt McCoy produced the last two truly great seasons of Texas football. Those comparisons are so ubiquitous that Shipley told the Austin American-Statesman this week that when he’s around and Smith’s name comes up, the connections are made.

But despite the similarities, there are some key difference. Most specifically, Shipley missed his first two years at Texas due to injuries that diluted the athleticism he possessed in high school. After Shipley completed his remarkable career on the Forty Acres, he was only able to run a 4.58 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, along with a poor 4.44 shuttle time.

Since Smith didn’t run track in high school and the school hasn’t revealed his testing times after arriving during the summer, it’s impossible to say definitively just how fast Smith could run in those drills. However, Smith did hold his own in testing compared to a freak athlete like freshman safety Tyler Owens, who ran a 10.29 100m this spring.

Regardless of the exact testing numbers, Smith’s play on the field backs up the argument that he is both faster and quicker than Shipley was when he finally saw the field at Texas. Ultimately, pure athleticism won’t be enough for Smith to approximate or exceed Shipley’s production with the Longhorns, but if it becomes the single, determining factor, the edge goes to Smith.

And that’s not a statement worth making lightly.