When Butch Jones ushered in his 2017 Tennessee football signing class, many names on the list had three, maybe four stars listed beside them.
Only one had the full five.
Trey Smith, an offensive tackle, bowled over enough defenders during his high school career to land at the top of the charts on most recruiting sites, and not just as a lineman, either.
Instead, Smith led the way as the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect on ESPN’s 300, so it’s no surprise that announcement of his recruitment decisions flashed across television screens throughout the offseason.
Schools such as Alabama, Clemson and, yes, Tennessee came calling quickly, and based on Smith’s film, it was for good reason.
As a standout at the University School of Jackson (Tenn.), Smith pancaked defenders on almost a play-by-play basis, and when he wasn’t planting anyone into the ground, he could be seen bulldozing his way to yet another downfield block.
Finally, his decision day came before he was set to enroll early, and in front of a packed house at his alma mater, Smith slapped on a Tennessee cap and declared himself a Volunteer.
After his announcement, Smith was interviewed by The Jackson Sun, and it was in this interview that he revealed how secretive he had been.
No one in the crowd knew what school Smith would choose, and when he did make his decision, some analysts seemed surprised. They had good reason to be, and they still do. You see, Smith is an outstanding football player, and he’ll probably do very well here on Rocky Top.
But, what if he doesn’t?
What if, just maybe, the same hype that surrounded both Jonathan Kongbo and Kahlil McKenzie entering their first seasons, only to lead to letdown performances, plagues Smith, too? What then?
Or, even worse, what if he does perform well, but Tennessee’s lackluster performance at almost every other position overshadows his ability on the offensive front?
Because that could very easily happen, just as we’ve seen with so many other would-be standouts in Knoxville. Moreover, with the Vols’ depth at offensive line, Smith might not even see a substantial amount of playing time.
Sure, his performance against Kongbo in a “Circle of Life” drill in practice was impressive, but that doesn’t guarantee anything come fall.
And with players such as Chance Hall and Brett Kendrick paving the way in the trenches, as well as redshirt freshman Drew Richmond expected to claim playing time, Smith still has a tough row to hoe in order to impact the Vols’ offense the way some fans think he will. Even sophomore tackle Marcus Tatum, who got thrown into the fire way too early last year, is pushing for playing time after adding weight the offseason. It’s a crowded room.
Last season, Tennessee’s offense finished just 52nd in the nation in sacks allowed, and that’s with former quarterback Josh Dobbs running the show from behind center.
Now, with two unproven quarterbacks vying for a starting spot, this offensive line’s job will be even tougher. Translation: Smith isn’t walking right into another highlight reel, nor another top spot on the stat sheet when considering the Vols’ projected offensive (and overall) production for this season.
Granted, Smith has had a great spring, especially with Walt Wells providing some insight and helping to turn Smith into a “bully,” as Jashon Robertson has phrased it.
Moreover, Saturday’s spring game should go a long way in showing fans what the freshman can really do, especially considering Smith was the first of his signing class to have his black helmet stripe removed.
But his presence won’t exactly be a game-changing one this season either, at least not with the way this offense seems to be shaping up.
Yes, running back John Kelly should have another good year after emerging late last season, but at just over 210 pounds, he’s also offensive coordinator Larry Scott’s best go-to option by a long shot. After that, Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-aime round out the position group, and neither one seems quite ready for a full-time position against a grueling SEC schedule.
The same can be said for other position groups across the board, as this could be as much of a “rebuilding year” as Jones has had in his tenure at Tennessee.
As such, Smith’s performance won’t be vital this season, at least not with the Vols’ veteran offensive front leading the way. Yes, it will be appreciated, and, so long as he does well, it should point to a bright future in Knoxville.
So far, though, many Vol fans on social media and on message boards seem to think of Smith as Tennessee football’s next savior, at least in the trenches for the next three to four years.
Instead, he’s still more of a kid (albeit somewhat of a man-child) who is vying for position on a team with a lot of experience at his position. The future appears to be bright for Smith, but patience is important for a player who will be finding his way in an offense that might take some time to find its way as well.