Bama’s Irv Smith Jr. fol­lows fam­ily path of star tight ends

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JOHN ZENOR

Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. was de­ter­mined to be a wide re­ceiver in high school.

Never mind that he’s the son and nephew of for­mer NFL tight ends and is built for that po­si­tion, too.

He caved to the re­al­ity his ju­nior year at Brother Mar­tin High School in New Or­leans and moved to the fam­ily’s fa­vored po­si­tion full time. Now, he has be­come a dan­ger­ous op­tion for the Crim­son Tide as both a pass catcher and blocker head­ing into Mon­day night’s na­tional cham­pi­onship game against Clem­son in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia.

“He fi­nally re­al­ized that you don’t have to be a wide re­ceiver to get a lot of glory,” said Irv Smith Sr., a for­mer first-round draft pick by the New Or­leans Saints.

It took two years of high school for the 6-foot-4, 241-pound Smith to fully em­brace life as a block­ing/ catch­ing tight end, and two more at Alabama be­fore he started get­ting any recog­ni­tion.

Smith, whose un­cle Ed­ward played for three NFL teams from 1997-99, has emerged from O.J. Howard’s shadow.

He has been a ben­e­fi­ciary of a more ex­plo­sive, pass-ori­ented Alabama of­fense led by quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa and co­or­di­na­tor Mike Lock­sley .

Smith went from 14 catches last sea­son to 40 for 667 yards and seven touch­downs as a se­nior. Even Howard, who be­came a first-round draft pick, never matched those num­bers.

But Howard’s per­for­mances against Clem­son will be aw­fully hard to top. He caught a 68-yard touch­down pass in a ti­tle game loss, and more than topped that a year later.

Howard had 208 re­ceiv­ing yards – in­clud­ing touch­downs of 53 and 51 yards – in a 45-40 win on Jan. 9, 2017 while Smith watched as a fresh­man re­serve.

“He made a bunch of plays in those games,” Smith said of Howard’s per­for­mances. “It’s mo­ti­vat­ing for me as well be­cause I ob­vi­ously want to come out and have a big game. It was awe­some see­ing him do that.

“I was be­hind him so ob­vi­ously I was cool with see­ing that. I feel like it’s my turn now.”

In case Lock­sley has for­got­ten about Howard’s suc­cess against Clem­son, Smith joked that “I’m go­ing to def­i­nitely talk to him, for sure.”

Smith had stretches this sea­son where he caught touch­down passes in four straight games and also had 50-plus re­ceiv­ing yards four times in a row at one point.

He scored on a 76-yard touch­down on Alabama’s first play against Arkansas.

Smith cer­tainly has had far more balls thrown his way this sea­son. But his fa­ther has also seen him im­prove “in leaps and bounds” each sea­son in Tuscaloosa. The younger Smith didn’t have a catch in nine games as a fresh­man, when his fa­ther said his move­ments on the field were stiff and robotic as he tried to get ac­cli­mated to a dif­fer­ent level of foot­ball.

That started to change last sea­son when he was more fluid and com­fort­able and showed his progress with a pan­cake block in the opener against Florida State.

“And this year he’s a whole dif­fer­ent player,” Irv Sr. said.

The Alabama tight end knew he had a chance to get tar­geted with Lock­sley em­pha­siz­ing he wanted to get more play­mak­ers in­volved .

Tide de­fend­ers who have faced him in prac­tice aren’t sur­prised, ei­ther.

“He’s big like a tight end but he has skills like a re­ceiver,” mid­dle line­backer Mack Wil­son said.

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