White Sox catcher Smith glad he called ca­reer au­di­ble as Pitt QB

Austin American-Statesman - - HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL - By David Haugh Chicago Tri­bune

With the White Sox off Mon­day, catcher Ke­van Smith went home to west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia and found his mind wan­der­ing on the drive past the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh cam­pus where he spent three years play­ing quar­ter­back.

“It brought back fa­mil­iar feel­ings, the mem­o­ries of train­ing camp when I was puk­ing and mis­er­able, dry­heav­ing,” re­called Smith, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder who played for coach Dave Wannst­edt at Pitt. “And af­ter pass­ing the field I was like, ‘Oh my God. OK, let’s go back to base­ball where I be­long.’”

Smith re­turned the Sox lineup Tues­day and en­joyed his best game of his promis­ing sea­son with a home run, dou­ble and four RBIs against the Astros. Dur­ing a re­build­ing process in which the only con­stant is change, Smith, 29, of­fers the moxie and lead­er­ship the Sox need be­hind the plate as they in­doc­tri­nate their hot pitch­ing prospects, start­ing Fri­day with Rey­naldo Lopez.

“He has con­tin­ued to im­prove,” Sox man­ager Rick Ren­te­ria said. “There’s some­thing to be said about tenac­ity. Any­thing is pos­si­ble, even for Ke­van Smith.”

Wannst­edt sensed some­thing spe­cial about Smith’s per­son­al­ity from his first re­cruit­ing visit to Cran­berry Town­ship, Pa. Base­ball was Smith’s first love but foot­ball — in­tro­duced ac­ci­den­tally when a rel­a­tive signed him up as a boy — of­fered a free col­lege ed­u­ca­tion.

“Ke­van was smart, tough as nails and had a big-time arm,” said Wannst­edt, the for­mer Bears and Dol­phins coach who led Pitt from 2005-2010. “We were in such bad shape that he was forced to play early. I’m not sure that was fair to him.”

An in­jury to Pitt’s start­ing quar­ter­back thrust Smith into ac­tion in the sec­ond game of his red­shirt fresh­man sea­son in a 34-10 vic­tory over Gram­bling. Lin­ing up along­side fu­ture NFL star run­ning back LeSean McCoy, Smith re­sponded by com­plet­ing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards — break­ing Dan Marino’s fresh­man record.

“I tell every­body I didn’t do much in foot­ball but in the Pitt record books, un­der pass­ing yards by a fresh­man in a game, it says Ke­van Smith and the next name is Dan Marino,” Smith said, pump­ing his fist. “That’s my mark in Pitt foot­ball his­tory.”

Much of the rest of Smith’s col­lege foot­ball ca­reer — six games at quar­ter­back in 2007-08 — he would like to erase. A 17-13 loss at Michi­gan State be­fore a crowd of 68,680 fea­tured Smith throw­ing a Pick-6 and hav­ing a wide re­ceiver drop a po­ten­tial game-win­ning touch­down pass. Upon re­turn­ing to cam­pus, Smith dis­cov­ered a Face­book group de­voted to hat­ing him.

“I was ridiculed to death,” Smith said. “It was hard not to get caught up in the so­cial me­dia. If I could go back, I would have blocked it out. It was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, big­time. I learned to be­lieve in my­self.”

A de­feat at Notre Dame Sta­dium the fol­low­ing sea­son taught more tough lessons. Ex­cited af­ter prac­tic­ing all week with Pitt’s No. 1 of­fense, Smith played only one se­ries for rea­sons he still can’t ex­plain.

“I never knew why I didn’t play more at Notre Dame but I joke I com­pleted a pass, handed the ball off and threw the ball into the band there,” Smith said.

By the end of 2008, Smith had bulked up to 250 pounds. He re­called be­ing “stronger than my line­men.” So with the lure of base­ball pulling Smith away from spring foot­ball prac­tice, he ap­proached Wannst­edt about be­com­ing a long-snap­per to keep his schol­ar­ship play­ing both sports. Wannst­edt sug­gested tight end. Ul­ti­mately, both men agreed Smith be­com­ing a full-time catcher made the most sense for his fu­ture.

“My buddy Joe Jor­dano, the base­ball coach, was al­ways needling me to give Ke­van up and it wasn’t two weeks af­ter he was out that Joe said he was the best guy (he had),” Wannst­edt said.

The Sox saw sim­i­lar po­ten­tial in the All-Big East catcher, tak­ing Smith in the sev­enth round of the 2011 draft. A late bloomer, Smith fi­nally stuck with the Sox af­ter back and knee in­juries ru­ined 2016. The more com­fort­able Smith gets, the more for­tu­nate he feels to have com­pleted what he called a “crazy” path to the ma­jors.

“A lot of guys get in the box and go, ‘Dude, you played Di­vi­sion I foot­ball? Wow,’ “Smith said. “It’s com­i­cal to me peo­ple are more fas­ci­nated that I was a col­lege quar­ter­back. I’m like, ‘Come on, we’re in the big leagues. This is much cooler.’”

Old habits die hard and Smith still wears an Un­der Ar­mour wrist­band car­ry­ing hand­writ­ten reminders about hit­ters the way it used to carry foot­ball plays. Smith saw for­mer Cubs catcher David Ross wear­ing one last year so, now, Smith con­sults his cheat sheet be­tween bat­ters to call a smarter game.

“I was stand­ing on sec­ond and (Astros sec­ond base­man) Jose Al­tuve yelled, ‘Hey, what’s that thing say?’ And I said, ‘It says to throw you heaters, Al­tuve,’ “Smith said, laugh­ing. “It just brings a sense of peace and con­fi­dence call­ing pitches.”

It ap­pears to be work­ing. Be­fore vet­eran Derek Hol­land’s start Tues­day, coach Don Cooper wanted to go over the scout­ing re­port with the Sox lefty.

“I got a hell of a com­pli­ment when Hol­land said, ‘I’m good, I trust ev­ery­thing “Smitty” does,’” Smith said.

Ev­ery day, that be­comes a lit­tle eas­ier for the Sox to do.

MICHAEL DWYER / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

White Sox catcher Ke­van Smith, top, looks to the run­ners af­ter the force-out on the Red Sox’s Xan­der Bo­gaerts, left, on a ground ball by Mookie Betts dur­ing the fifth in­ning Aug. 4 in Bos­ton.

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