Jackets look to produce another NFL receiver

AP Sports WriterNovember 9, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech loves to run, run, run.

Even so, the Yellow Jackets keep turning out NFL-quality receivers.

Demaryius Thomas. Stephen Hill. And now, another unlikely candidate from the triple-option -- DeAndre Smelter, who only joined the football team this season after three years playing baseball for the Jackets.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior has made several eye-opening catches and may just have the skills to follow Thomas and Hill to the NFL if he keeps improving his fundamentals at such a rapid rate.

"I'm definitely surprised at the level I'm playing at," said Smelter, who leads Georgia Tech with numbers that sound modest -- 19 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns -- until one considers how much this team runs the ball.

The Yellow Jackets (6-3), who are off this week, keep it on the ground about 80 percent of the time, which doesn't leave a lot of opportunities for the receivers.

But when they do get their chance, it is often for big yards.

Last week, Smelter leaped over two Pitt defenders to haul in a 42-yard pass that led to a touchdown in a 21-10 victory.

"It's a great offense for wide receivers," coach Paul Johnson said, repeating a refrain he often uses on people who think his scheme is out-of-date in today's pass-happy game. "You don't get double-covered. You get one-on-ones with nobody underneath. You learn all the basic skills and fundamentals you need to be a good player on the next level."

While Georgia Tech's receivers may not run the same complex routes that other schools use, they certainly become more adept at blocking in the run game -- an intangible many NFL teams look for beyond the usual pass-catching and route-running skills.

"I think you become a complete player," Johnson said.

And that happened even before the coach arrived. Keep in mind, Georgia Tech, with a different offensive strategy, produced Detroit Lions standout Calvin Johnson, as well.

Thomas was already at Georgia Tech when Paul Johnson arrived in 2008. Knowing the Yellow Jackets would switch from a pro-style to option offense, the receiver considered transferring.

But the new coach persuaded Thomas to stay, a decision he never regretted.

"I knew I wasn't going to get many passes, but I knew I'd have a lot of big plays," Thomas said. "And Stephen Hill came actually with the triple option, and the same way with him. I guess it's just about big plays."

Thomas had a breakout season as a junior, turning 46 receptions into 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns. He entered the NFL draft in 2010, was picked No. 22 overall by the Denver Broncos, and now plays a key role in the Peyton Manning-led offense.

Hill wasn't quite as productive in college but did break his predecessor's school record by averaging 29.3 yards per catch in 2011 -- good enough to persuade the New York Jets to pick him in the second round.

"If you don't worry about catching the ball but want to make a lot of big plays, that's a place to go," Thomas said of his alma mater. "I'd rather have a couple catches and make big plays. I can go five (catches) for 125 (yards) or whatever it is. I'd be fine with that."

Smelter has taken a different route to the triple-option -- through the baseball team.

Drafted as a pitcher out of high school by the Minnesota Twins, he didn't turn pro but clearly thought his future was on the diamond, not the gridiron. That is, until shoulder problems stymied his progress on the mound.

Finally, he decided to give football a try, which is what his mother wanted all along.

"My mom always thought I was a better football player," Smelter said. "She's having a great time with it."

Like those who came before him, he's finding that it's not necessarily a hindrance to be a receiver in the triple-option.

"There's definitely room for success in this offense," Smelter said.

"A lot of people just look at receiving from a catch-and-run standpoint. But there's a lot of stuff that goes into it."

There are a lot of good receivers, like Brandon Marshall in the NFL, who are great at run blocking."

Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee has been impressed with Smelter's work ethic.

Over the summer, the receiver-to-be was always quick to volunteer any time his quarterback wanted to throw some passes. Smelter kept it up on the practice field and in the film room, playing catch-up for those three years he missed.

"He can improve with a lot of things," Lee said. "But you can't deny that he's a playmaker and that he really wants to be good."

Smelter is still torn between baseball -- the major leagues have been his dream since he was a little kid -- and football. He plans to play both again next year, then see where the future takes him.

He's never gotten a chance to meet Thomas or Hill.

"They probably don't even know who I am," Smelter said, grinning.

Who knows?

He might get a chance to catch up with them in the NFL.

"Maybe," Smelter said, still smiling. "You never know."

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AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report from Denver.

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