Aug 14, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – With apologies to offensive linemen, it turns out that in football, size doesn’t always matter.
If it did, Marshall senior slot receiver and punt returner Devon Smith would probably be a basketball pass-first point guard or a track and field sprinter.
He has the uniform number – 11 – for the former, and the speed for the latter. The size?
Well, let’s just say the 5 feet 7 at which he’s listed on the 2013 Thundering Herd roster? Was that measured with his helmet on?
Although his Mom-given nickname is “MooMoo,” there’s certainly nothing bovine-like about the 155-pound Smith, who played 36 games with 56 receptions over three seasons at Penn State before transferring to Marshall prior to last season, in the wake of NCAA sanctions against the Nittany Lions.
After he sat out last season after torn ligaments in his left foot required surgery last September – “It was really aching before that,” he said -- Smith is ready to have a big impact for Coach Doc Holliday’s fourth MU team.
And if fellow slot man Tommy Shuler doesn’t get the school-record 110 catches he did last season, a good reason might be Smith’s capable hands and fleet feet on the other side.
“It’s all about heart,” Smith said when asked what’s the key – besides speed – for a guy trying to pinball his way into open territory among players who have 75-100 pounds on him. “It’s all about the heart.
“I’m not the biggest guy, but I’m going to go in there, I’m going to take hits and do whatever I can to win for my team. The biggest thing is just playing with your heart and not being scared.”
Smith, from White Plains, Md., was anointed the fastest player in the 2009 national recruiting class by Rivals.com after he clocked 4.19 and 4.23. As a senior at Westlake High – while his mother was screaming his crib-side nickname “MooMoo … MooMoo” from the stands, he said – Smith rushed for 1,883 yards and 23 touchdowns and had 18 catches for 401 yards and three scores. He also scored four times on returns.
As he sat out last season and got around on crutches, he watched the Herd produce one of the nation’s top offenses, one that topped the country in passing yards per game.
“Once I saw what the offense was like here, I wish I’d have committed here my freshman year,” Smith said. “It was throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball. And that’s great for the receiver corps if you want the ball.
“At Penn State we ran some slot stuff, but I played outside (receiver). There was not a lot of throwing the ball. We did lots of I-formation stuff, so I didn’t get a lot of catches.”
Smith didn’t get off crutches and out of a boot until just before the Herd started spring drills in late March. He was limited in those workouts, and his ability has shined through in preseason camp.
“It wasn’t real difficult getting back into the flow,” said Smith (whose given first name is pronounced Duh-VON). “If you’re an athlete and love football and have football instincts, it’s not going to be difficult. It was a matter of me just knowing the playbook, a new system. It was easy for me to get back onto the field.
Smith said he hasn’t run an “official” 40 yards since coming to Marshall, so he said he’s sticking with his reported 4.2 speed. “I’m still 4.2, still got it,” he said.
Who among the Herd is as fast, or faster, in his mind?
“(Running back) Kevin Grooms,” he said.
How about fellow running back Steward Butler?
“No, Kevin Grooms, but not by much,” Smith said. “I’d say he’s probably the only one close to me.”
Smith has a teacher who understands what the diminutive senior wideout deals with on a daily basis. First-year Herd receivers coach Mike Furrey spent seven seasons in the NFL—and at 5-11, 192 Furrey wasn’t the biggest guy, but he finished his career with 221 career catches, including 98 in 2006 with Detroit.
“I tell you, that kid’s got more tangibles than I ever had,” Furrey said when asked how his undersized experiences compare to Smith’s play. “He’s the fastest kid I’ve ever been around, the quickest, shiftiest guy I’ve ever been round.
“MooMoo is tough, he’s competitive and so I’m sure those things will help him out.
“Yeah, he’s little, but if you’re fast, they can’t really catch you either, so you’re going to take a lot of damage off your body. If you’re slow and little, that’s another thing. But when you’re little like that, quick and shifty, you can maneuver out of big hits.”
Smith said he likes playing the slot over the outside receiver spot, because although it might be more difficult for him to see through the maze of bodies, his speed and agility help him outmaneuver linebackers and “shifting safeties.”
It’s like Holliday has said about Shuler’s performance last season – “a linebacker can’t cover Tommy. A safety can’t cover him, either.”
Ditto for Smith.
“A guy his size can get open because like Tommy, he understands the game,” Furrey said. “MooMoo understands where to go, understands where to sit (for the ball). He can catch a lot of footballs, make a lot of big plays.
“The education is part of the game, just the learning why, when, and where to be. Obviously, we’ve seen that on film, and you guys saw it all of last year with Tommy. He just knows where to go, what to do, has a great relationship with the quarterback and the quarterback trusts him to be there when he should be there.”
Shuler hasn’t gotten much work this preseason as he recovers from foot surgery this summer, but he’s rounding into full-go this week. That doesn’t mean the junior’s history and knowledge have been limited, too.
“I’ve learned a lot from Shuler,” Smith said. “Honestly, I think he’s the best receiver in college football, the best route-runner in the nation. His route-running is great. With Tommy, it’s all about route-running, route-running, route-running.
“You watch film on him and you pick things up and it makes you better. I do some of the things he does a lot. From me, he maybe learns quick, quick, quick. He’s quick, too, but it’s about speed.
“He’ll sit in there, and it all has to do with coverages. You have to know what (the defense) is in, where you can go, whether it’s Cover 2, 3, 6, 4. Tommy sitting … this offense is built around sitting on routes, so you just watch the coverages. That’s really it. It’s not hard.”
Furrey figures Smith’s underrated toughness is as crucial to the Herd as his speed.
“Once MooMoo settles down – and he’s come night and day from where he was in the spring because he’s learning then playbook – you get him into as much as you can.
“I think just getting him out there, and then you add his other things. He wasn’t healthy at all in spring. You get him healthy, getting it under his belt this first Miami (Ohio) game (Aug. 31), getting him on the field in a game …
“Everything kind of slows down then. It could be pretty neat.”
And if everything slows down, speedy MooMoo might cause the Herd opponents to have a cow.