Dontae Smith usually stays even-keeled to the point of stoic, but the smile stretched across his face as soon as he was asked to recall it.
“It was a counter play,” Smith remembered of his first career touchdown run, against Louisville on a misty Friday in Atlanta in October of 2020.
“It was a surreal feeling. I got to the end zone, it was something that the team was waiting for. Because a lot of times I would have good runs, but I just couldn’t get in the end zone,” he said.
Being at the same school for six years gives you plenty of chances for nostalgia. The running back from Spring Hill, Tenn., will bank another full-circle moment this weekend when Georgia Tech opens its 2023 season against Louisville – again on a Friday night in Atlanta – in the Aflac Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). The Yellow Jackets will play the Cardinals for the first time since that matchup at Bobby Dodd Stadium, when Smith’s 12-yard touchdown provided the exclamation mark in a 46-27 win.
Plenty has changed for Tech since that October night three years ago. Plenty has changed for Smith, too. It’s been a constant throughout his career, ever since he arrived as an A-Back in the summer of 2018. At Georgia Tech he’s cycled through three different head coaches, four different offensive coordinators, five different position coaches, crowded backfields, changes in scheme – but never a change in scenery.
“I’ve put in so much work here. I have to win. I have to win here,” Smith said.
He knows that loyalty may make him an outlier in today’s college football. But it also makes Friday’s opener even more meaningful for him.
“It’s really a bittersweet moment,” Smith said. “Long time coming, but [I’m] very excited.”
“Tae’s the starting running back. And I’m excited as heck to see him go out there on Friday night and play,” added head coach Brent Key.
Were it not for a distantly related Yellow Jacket, Smith may have never landed at Tech in the first place. At Spring Hill High School, 35 miles south of Nashville, Smith earned the nickname “2K Tae” for his ability to produce 2,000-yard rushing seasons with ease. Higher profile schools had stayed off his scent, though, until former All-ACC guard Shaq Mason, a distant cousin of Smith’s on his father’s side, sprang into action.
Mason was lightly recruited himself out of nearby Columbia, Tenn., before former Tech assistant c0ach Andy McCollum took a flier on him. He urged McCollum to do the same with his elusive, under-the-radar cousin.
Said Smith: “Coach Mac was actually recruiting somewhere in middle Tennessee, and Shaq told him, ‘Hey, you need to stop by Spring Hill and check out my little cousin Dontae.’ Coach Mac was headed back, so he just stopped by and came in the office. He said he watched my film, he loved it, and he told me to come to camp.”
"I got here in 2018, and I fell in love with the place," Smith said. "I can’t just put in all that work and go, 'Ahh, let me go somewhere else and try to win.' I want to win here. I want to win at something that I was a part of building all these years. It’s really a loyalty and a pride thing. I’ve got to finish what I started."
It began an odyssey at Tech even he couldn’t have imagined. Since redshirting in 2018, then having 10 carries in a reserve role in 2019, Smith has been a fixture in the Yellow Jackets’ rotation. He’s averaged 5.0 yards a carry for his career, with a knack for breaking tackles that belies his 5-foot-11, 198-pound frame. His 1,159 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns hardly fit the profile of a seldom-used player. He’s also had a rushing attempt in 27 straight games, an admirable streak of longevity for a high-contact position.
Yet despite that consistency, Smith has never led Tech in rushing attempts in a season or averaged more than 35 rushing yards per game. He split carries in 2020 and 2021 with Jordan Mason and Jahmyr Gibbs, a pair of future NFL running backs. After rushing for a career-high 102 yards in an early September win over Western Carolina, a lingering knee injury forced him to cede carries to transfer Hassan Hall for most of 2022.
Smith was on track to graduate with his business administration degree in December, and the NCAA had granted all players an extra year of eligibility due to COVID. If he stayed at Tech, he knew he’d have to adjust to his fifth running backs coach in six seasons. He hadn’t played on a winning team since his redshirt year. He had yet to showcase himself fully as a featured back. Who knew if Georgia Tech’s new offensive system would even fit his skill set?
The portal or the pros beckoned. Instead, two days after Georgia Tech’s regular season finale, Smith had his mind made up.
“I love Coach Key. When he got the head job, there was no question if I was staying,” he said.
“When he got the interim job, in my head I’m like, ‘We’re winning. He’s going to get the head coach job.’ I already made it up in my bead. I told my Mom I’m staying here at Georgia Tech,” he added.
He also thought back to all the equity he had built over his five seasons at Tech. All the changes around him had never sapped his passion for Tech or his conviction in what the Institute stood for.
It didn’t seem right to throw that away in search of a fresh start elsewhere.
“I got here in 2018, and I fell in love with the place,” Smith said. “I can’t just put in all that work and go, “Ahh, let me go somewhere else and try to win.’ I want to win here. I want to win at something that I was a part of building all these years. It’s really a loyalty and a pride thing. I’ve got to finish what I started.”
His work ethic has drawn an admirer in new running backs coach Norval McKenzie.
“He is not a kid that is going to have mental mistakes and he is going to practice hard. He has been battle-tested in the past so you feel confident that he can go out there and due to his experience have some success,” McKenzie said.
But older players all know it. At a certain point in their careers, the “firsts” give way to “lasts.” On the eve of what he calls his “last first game,” Georgia Tech’s sixth-year senior hopes his perseverance will be rewarded with a memorable final season.
Said Smith, smile denting that stoic face again: “There’s no nerves. There’s no anxiety. There’s just pure excitement to go perform the best that I can, and know that the work I put in, that this team has put in – once we translate it on the field, people are going to see Georgia Tech. And they’re going to see that we’re back.”