Oct. 10, 2008
By Scott Latta
When it comes to protecting quarterback John Parker Wilson, Andre Smith takes it personal.
"I absolutely love John Parker. When it comes to protecting him, I consider him to be my mom on the playing field," Smith said. "You don't want anyone to hit your mom. So I try my hardest to protect him."
Smith's words today ring like those of a third-year SEC veteran. Now a junior, Smith is the anchor of the Alabama offensive line, a preseason All-American and winner of last season's Jacobs Award as most outstanding offensive lineman in the SEC. He is recognized nationally as one of the top linemen in the country and has even had video clips of his blocking find their way to the Internet.
But just a little more than two years ago, Smith was a high school senior trying to navigate through the high grass of college football recruitment. Considered by many to be the top offensive lineman and one of the top overall players in the country in 2005, Smith was the focus of dozens of colleges and universities throughout his high school career.
High school recruiting today is a multi-million dollar business, considered by many to be too intrusive and pushy for 17 and 18-year-olds to take part in. National networks devote hours to dissecting the abilities of football players who have never before put on a college uniform. The rise of the Internet has led to national exposure for players of all ages, even stretching into middle school. Today, even high school sophomores reach notoriety.
It's a booming business, fueled by an American passion for college football. But is it too much? Smith, a unanimous five-star recruit who held more than 90 scholarship offers, found his way through the recruiting world to the University of Alabama, where he locked down the starting left tackle position as a freshman and has since manned it through his career.
The key to managing the magnifying glass and spotlight that come with recruiting, Smith said, is finding a balance.
"I never had to really deal with it," he said. "My mom and dad basically handled everything. I was able to focus on high school, my teammates, myself, my team as a whole and my academics. As far as being overwhelmed, you just have to weigh everything. What's more important? It's good to talk to the coaches who are recruiting you, but it's more important to focus on academics and your football team."
One major part of the recruitment process is the official visit. Recruits are allowed five of them. Smith, like many high school seniors, took all five, including trips to Southern Cal, LSU and Florida.
Schools use the official visit weekends to showcase their programs, rolling out a red carpet for the blue-chips who visit. Recruits tour the campus, the stadium, the locker room, and interact with current players.
"You eat whatever food you want to eat," Smith said. "That's the biggest thing to me. You get to hang out with the players, see them, see how they practice if you come in during football season and just really hang around the coaches, get to know their personalities and what they like to do."
One drawback of the process, Smith said, is often the preconceived notion and reputation that follows a high-profile recruit.
"A lot of guys told me a year ago that they thought I was going to be arrogant when I came in," he said. "But that's not me. I'm cool, calm and laid back."
Smith is not by any means the only player on Alabama's team who has experienced the spotlight that comes with being a noteworthy football recruit. Alabama's 2008 recruiting class was considered by many to be the top class in the nation, with some recruiting services saying the Tide reeled in three five-star players in the class alone.
One of those players is receiver Julio Jones, who made his debut for Alabama in the Tide's 34-10 win over Clemson in August and is the Tide's leading receiver through the first half of the season, already breaking the school record for touchdown catches by a freshman. Jones, considered unanimously to be one of the top five recruits in the country and by many to be number one overall, picked Alabama in February over offers from schools around the country.
Smith saw how Jones navigated the recruiting world to make his decision to attend Alabama, then saw how Jones faced the same challenge he did upon entering the University--battling the high-profile reputation that preceded him.
"They thought he was going to be (arrogant), but he's a hard worker," Smith said. "He's not boasting about what he's going to do or what he can do, he just lets his actions speak louder than words."
In his two full seasons as left tackle on Alabama's offensive line, Smith has faced a number of challenges on the football field. In what is arguably the toughest football conference in the country, he plays arguably the toughest position facing the highest amount of responsibility, protecting the blind side of quarterback John Parker Wilson from rushing defensive ends.
On the field, Smith's demeanor is that of a mean, gritty, hard-nosed player. Off the field, however, he is quiet and respectful, carrying himself with the manner of someone just going out and doing his job.
"Nobody has really given me trouble," he said of the defensive ends he has faced on the field. "I put trouble on myself by using bad technique. The guys in the SEC that are gone and the guys that are going to be coming through the SEC are great athletes. I look at them as the same."
This season, Smith is the anchor of a veteran offensive line that returns four starters from last year's group, including senior center Antoine Caldwell, who opted to wait a year before entering the NFL Draft to be a part of the group. Also included is last year's right tackle Mike Johnson, who this year has shifted to left guard. Johnson's versatility also enabled him to substitute at left tackle for Smith as he battled a sprained knee early on in the season.
If rushing yards are any indication of the success of the unit, Alabama's stats through the first half of the season show the offensive line to be one of the most dominant Alabama has had in years: through six games, Alabama has rushed for more than 230 yards in four of them, averaging more than 220 rushing yards per game.
To Smith, the numbers serve as a was a sign of the group's physical ability, yes. But perhaps more so, Smith knows, it is a sign of their unity and, hopefully, a sign of more to come.
"It's like we never missed a beat, really," Smith said. "On the offensive line, if we do what we're supposed to do then we're going to have a great time."