Commentary

Small stature not hurting Devon Smith

Updated: February 20, 2009, 1:53 PM ET
By Jon Mahoney | ESPNRISE.com

During a recruiting trip to Penn State last summer, Devon Smith had the opportunity to meet with legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. While sitting in JoePa's office, Smith thought about the significance of being recruited by a college powerhouse like the Nittany Lions.

[+] EnlargeDevon Smith
Ned Dishman/ESPNRISEDevon Smith is a state champion in track as well as being recruited to play football at Penn State.

He reflected on how he was going to be the first member of his family to go to college. And he recalled all the comments from doubters who never thought he'd star at the high school level, let alone make it to college.

With all those thoughts swirling through his head, Smith broke down and cried in front of Paterno. They were tears of joy from a kid who right then and there realized just how far his athletic talent could take him.

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"All my life, people have been telling me I'm not going to make it in football," Smith says. "They say, 'You're too small. You're only fast.' I took that as, 'OK, watch what I'm going to do.' Now look at me. I have a scholarship to Penn State."

The 5-foot-7, 155-pound Westlake (Waldorf, Md.) senior (whose first name is pronounced day-von) earned that scholarship offer thanks to his electrifying moves on the gridiron as a running back/wide receiver/kick returner. But he also happens to be a national-caliber sprinter who plans to compete for the track team at Penn State as well.

There will probably be skeptics who'll say he can't handle double duty at a Big Ten power like Penn State. But that's nothing new. Everywhere he's gone, Smith has heard the whispers of those who've looked at his lack of size and wondered if he was for real.

Each time, he's answered with a resounding yes.

During his freshman year at Eleanor Roosevelt, Smith saw significant playing time for the varsity football team despite checking in at 5-foot-4 and 102 pounds. The following season, he became an All-County selection.

Smith's promising football career was briefly halted during the fall of his junior year following his transfer to Westlake, as he had to sit out the entire football season at his new school. Instead of sulking, Smith turned his attention toward prepping for the indoor track season.

"I thought the year was going to be terrible," Smith says. "I played football all my life. But I couldn't get down. I knew I had to improve in something."

Smith did more than improve -- he moved to the top of the class in track. At the Marine Corps Holiday Classic in New York, Smith ran on Westlake's victorious 4x200 relay team, which clocked a 1:28.85, good for the nation's No. 5 high school indoor time last season. His 6.32 in the 55-meter dash at both the Charles County Invitational and Southern Maryland Athletic Conference championship was also a top-five national time.

At the Maryland Class 3A state indoor meet, he won the 55 and helped the 4x200 and 4x400 teams to titles. Following state, Smith took his talents to the national stage, placing second in the 60-meter dash at the Nike Indoor Nationals in Landover.

Smith earned a spot on The Washington Post All-Met first team thanks to his scintillating indoor campaign, a season in which he let everyone know there was a new sprinting force to be reckoned with.

"He's a finely tuned athlete who's very serious in what he does," Westlake track coach Beth Shook says. "When he goes to the starting blocks, he's focused on what he wants to do. Then it's all one fluid motion. The gun goes off and, blink your eye, he's at the finish line."

Smith carried his winter success into the spring season. At the prestigious Penn Relays, he helped Westlake's 4x100 team place fourth in the Championship of America race. The Wolverines were the only U.S. team in the race, a competition that featured six Jamaican squads and one from the Bahamas.

At the 3A state outdoor meet a month later, he set a state record in the 100 with a 10.42 in the prelims before capturing the title with a 10.64 in the finals. He also won the 200 (21.43), led the 4x200 relay team to a state record (1:26.40) and helped the 4x100 squad to a 3A record (41.76).

As soon as track ended, Smith turned his attention back to the gridiron with hopes of getting noticed by elite college programs. He took a major step in that direction when he earned MVP honors at the Under Armour Combine in Baltimore.

Penn State was the first school from a BCS conference to offer a scholarship, and Smith pledged to the Nittany Lions early in the fall. After how he played this season, it looks like they're getting a steal. Smith led the Wolverines to the Class 3A state championship, returning a punt for a touchdown in the title-game triumph over Wilde Lake on Dec. 4. He finished the season with 1,806 rushing yards, 401 receiving yards and 31 total touchdowns.

"He's a threat to score every time he touches the ball," Westlake football coach Dominic Zaccarelli says. "If he gets in the secondary and makes one guy miss, there isn't anyone who's catching him."

"I got a good lick on him in practice once, but that's about it," adds senior running back/linebacker Evan Harris, who's also on the track team. "When he gets the edge, you might as well say forget it. He's a blur."

With his final high school football season behind him, Smith is intent on not only defending his state track crowns but also becoming the best sprinter in the nation. It's a definite change in mindset for someone who focused solely on football while growing up.

"I used to think I was a football player running track," Smith says. "But when I started winning and winning, I started to like track. I just like to compete in everything."

And prove all the doubters wrong along the way.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.