July 29, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
As DeAndre Smelter’s crooked, magical and maddening path continued Tuesday with the San Francisco 49ers placing the rookie on the “active/non-football” injury list, the wide receiver is looking forward to the NFL and back to Georgia Tech.
Working hard to move past a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament, he’s not sure when he’ll get the chance to show his wares at the pro level.
It won’t be as soon as Saturday, when the 49ers open training camp. After San Francisco rookies underwent physicals Monday, he was placed on the NFL list with no timetable given for activation.
So, while laboring under the watchful eyes of San Francisco’s medical and training staffs, he’s keeping an eye on and ears open to his former Tech teammates as they, too, will begin fall practice on the same day.
The Yellow Jackets will enter camp shy at wide receiver. Both of last season’s starters are trying to make livelihoods playing pro football. The 49ers drafted Smelter in the fourth round, and Darren Waller went to the Ravens in the sixth.
That and his season-ending injury at Georgia have left Smelter in the role of trusted advisor.
“I try to keep in touch with everybody. Darren, BJ [Bostic], Deon [Hill], Shaq [Mason], see if everybody is doing well,” Smelter said by phone Tuesday evening. “The people on the team now, the receivers, I keep in touch. Really, I just tell them if they have a question they can come to me.”
Smelter should know. He learned quickly.
Drafted in the 14th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2010, he shook off the offer/urge to turn professional out of Macon’s Tattnall Square Academy yet kept chasing a baseball dream at Tech. That didn’t go so well. A shoulder injury pushed the pitcher/outfielder back to football in 2013.
That went well. Raw and rusty, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound multi-sport athlete nonetheless quickly became the Jackets’ leading wideout while pulling in 21 catches for an average of 16.4 yards as a junior. He scored four touchdowns.
Last season was better. Smelter led Tech with 35 receptions, a 20.4-yard average, seven touchdowns, and a notable number of key blocks on the edges of the Jackets’ vaunted, high-volume running attack.
The young man responsible for exactly one third of the Jackets’ 106 receptions and 37 percent of their 19 touchdown receptions won’t be producing for a while.
He hasn’t played since wrenching that knee in Tech’s overtime win-for-the-ages in Athens last fall, after catching three passes and rushing once in a sublime game.
San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke recently suggested that Smelter may be well enough to play this season, and perhaps even be activated in the next month.
Yet there are no guarantees, and a 23-year-old rookie is not making any promises that his body may not be able to keep.
“Phyiscally, I feel good. I’m not trying to rush anything, just working with training staff,” Smelter said. “I’ve been running, doing a little bit of cutting.”
The 49ers are in a unique position.
Veterans Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are likely starters, and wideouts Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton were fourth-round picks in the ’13 and ’14 drafts.
This could be Boldin’s last season with the 49ers, so first-year San Francisco head coach Jim Tomsula and his staff need to develop wide receivers. If Smelter is able to help this season, that will be a bonus. It is not a certainty.
Where he was developing quickly enough that some considered Smelter a possible second-round pick before his injury, he’s on ice for now and facing questions beyond whether his route running and receiving skills will catch up to his athleticism.
“It’s not in my hands,” he said of his timeline. “Whatever they tell me to do, I do.”
Before the April 30-May 2 NFL draft, Smelter was re-habilitating and working out out at Tech. Since May 11, he’s been in San Francisco — or rather the 49ers’ home of Santa Clara, Calif. — but for one trip home to Georgia after the NFL Rookie Symposium. His family has not been visiting, either, at least not yet.
“I’m trying to make this my new home. I’m not in Georgia too often. I haven’t been out here too long,” he said. “[Family members] haven’t been out because they know I’m here to focus.
“I’m just sitting in meetings, learning, and working out. Everybody goes about their business a certain way. You have to do something that separates you from everybody else.”
That’s his primary message for former teammates.
Smelter stays in touch with former Tech baseball player Alex Cruz, and several football players in between workouts. He doesn’t have a home yet, staying in a hotel with fellow rookie and former South Carolina running back Mike Davis, who grew up in Atlanta and attended Stephenson High.
He’s in a new place, on ice and waiting to start a new life.
“I had been to California one time, and that was to pitch in the AFLAC All-American game [in high school],” Smelter said. “It’s nice, good scenery. I didn’t go to any games, but I watched the Warriors a lot [on their way to recently winning the NBA title]. It was good for this area; there was a long drought.
“I’ve been to one Giants game. AT&T Field is probably one of the nicest parks. I’ve just been in the hotel a lot . . . I talk to Mike [Summers] a lot, letting him know what he has to do and to step up. I talked to Ricky and Antonio and just told them step up. If you want to be good, put in the work.”
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