Quarterbacks aren't the only guys who can have 'It.' Whatever "It," is.
Take D'Ante Smith, the Bengals rookie offensive lineman built to NFL specifications and wired with "It." Rodney Holder, his head coach at Grovetown High School, just a Hail Mary from The Masters' Amen Corner, knew it long before the Bengals made his big guy with the baby face the first high school player from Columbia County to be drafted by the NFL.
"Whatever the reason, it's been a baseball, soccer area," says Holder, who won three baseball state championships playing for his father at Evans High School in a slice of east central Georgia along the Savannah River. "Then this cat comes in and gets serious about football. From the day he showed up, he just wanted to know how to get better. Never late. Always early for everything. Always the best teammate."
Smith is still ahead of schedule, surfacing at Bengals training camp sooner than anybody thought even though they were just as serious about him as he was about football. When the Bengals personnel staff began gathering at about 6:30 a.m. for the last day of the last draft that would begin in a few hours with their three picks in the fourth round, director of college scouting Mike Potts could be found scouring Smith's tape.
There was only the opening game from his 2020 season at East Carolina, when he was a scant 283 pounds after three COVID quarantines. Smith opted out and concentrated on the Senior Bowl, where Potts saw him at about 295 pounds easily moving to guard at 6-5 with those 35-inch arms the pros covet.
Head coach Zac Taylor also remembered Smith at the Senior Bowl. He was still taking about the club's 18-minute interview with him on Sunday.
"One of the things he laid out to you back then was his weight progression and what his goals were for his weight," Taylor said. "I still have my notes, he has hit every single weight progression he gave us for the season, the Senior Bowl, the combine time, reporting for NFL, reporting for training camp, bam, he hit all five of them. And so that just tells you he's got that pro mentality, where he's got a plan in place and he's going to execute it."
The room reached a consensus with the fourth round looming. With Smith, now at about 305 pounds, they hoped to get him with one of those picks in that round. Raw. But talented. Maybe he could use a red shirt year to develop.
After taking two defensive linemen ahead of him in Tulane's Cam Sample and LSU's Tyler Shelvin, they settled on the old relentless high school wrestler stopped only by Georgia rules who was voted a captain for 16 straight games by his college teammates.
But on a bare-chested NFL roster, there are no red shirts. When right tackle Riley Reiff and backup Fred Johnson got nicked that first week of camp, Smith, now at 320 pounds, got a shot. He played well enough that when left guard Quinton Spain went down for a few days after Reiff came back, offensive line coach Frank Pollack stopped Smith in the hallway last Saturday morning and told him he was at left guard with the first group. Smith, who played one college game inside as a sophomore, didn't break stride.
After the weekend practices, Smith was backing up Spain at left guard on Taylor's first 2021 depth chart released on Monday.
"He is physical. He's got the right intangibles. He's a smart football player. And he takes the coaching and makes himself better," Taylor says. "So, he takes the coaching from a week ago, he takes the coaching from a day ago, and he uses that to become a better player each day, and you reward that. And so he ran in there with the ones and did a great job.
"Not to say it was perfect, but I can guarantee you one thing about D'Ante is he'll take the mistakes Frank gives him and he'll correct them today, and he'll be much better today. So, really excited about the progress he's making and just his overall approach has been great to see."
That's pretty much what Holder saw at Grovetown when Smith arrived for his sophomore season with his mother, Samantha Russell. Holder still remembers the conversation in the back hallway of Columbia County's newest high school. She told him, "Do whatever you need to do to make him better."
"I'm thinking this kid is massive," Holder says. "But he looks like a baby. He's just a giant kid. He still had that baby face. Neat family. They've got it going on. His mom's an amazing lady. Down through the years, sometimes you run into 'That Parent.' She was just the opposite. Never an E-mail. Whenever I saw her, it was always very supportive."
A baby face with a weather-beaten maturity. Smith says he gets much of his drive from his mother, a tax revenue officer for the state of Georgia. The economics degree he got back in December is no doubt a nod to her. He says there was no particular reason they moved about 20 minutes from Augusta to Grovetown, where the high school had just been formed.
All Holder knows is he was building a football program in one of the most competitive regions anywhere and he suddenly found he had an all-in ally when the big kid kept showing up in the weight room asking the coaches how he could get better.
"Dude, you should wrestle," was the advice and he was off getting letters on the mat. He went over Georgia's 285-pound weight limit in his senior year, and couldn't compete but he kept working with the team, much like he did last year at East Carolina.
"He was a heck of a wrestler. What helped him I think is that we had a pretty established program and he got a good start. He just got too big for the sport," Holder says. "To me, wrestling was a big thing for him. When he learned to control that big, old body, he just naturally got stronger.
"Not a rah-rah guy, but he would tell you when you weren't doing it the right way. There's just the maturity factor. Sometimes you talk to kids and they're just a little more mature than the others. Whatever we told him, it's like we he could connect with it and understand that we're trying to make you better. He's always been driven. Athletics. Academics."
Smith had everything going for him coming out of high school. Smarts. Size. Talent. Everything but a football pedigree. Holder, whose father became the first Georgia high school baseball coach to win 500 games while coaching in the county, can't remember a player from Columbia sticking on an NFL roster, never mind being drafted.
Baseball, yes. Todd Greene, who followed Holder at Evans, is best known for catching George W. Bush's first pitch that opened the 2001 World Series in the days after 9/11, but he also knocked around the majors for 11 seasons. Greenbrier, the newer high school in Evans, has produced Brandon Cumpton, a pitcher limited to 10 starts for the 2013-14 Pirates because of arm injuries, and Nick Sandlin, a current reliever in Cleveland.
But football? Even though Columbia is one of Georgia's rapidly growing counties (population about 160,000 with the help of such Augusta industries as The Masters, E-Z Go Carts, the new Army Cyber Command at nearby Fort Gordon), the football powers have always been around the region and not in the county.
Bengals fans know that Warner Robins is the home of franchise great James Brooks. Augusta's Deon Grant got a Super Bowl in the last 11 seasons of his career with the 2011 Giants. Smith and Holder played against Bengals sixth-round pick Trey Hill's Houston County out of Warner Robins on a team quarterbacked by Jake Fromm.
"For a newer school, that was tough," Holder says. "You only had one non-region game on your schedule. We called it going through 'The Gauntlet.' That level of competition obviously helped D'Ante. We're chipping away at it."
He'll be able to tell them D'Ante Smith started the NFL run on Columbia County.
"Some guys got it. Some guys don't," Holder says.
The kid with the baby face was always grown up.