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#TGW: From the Diamond to the Gridiron

June 10, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

– For as much as DeAndre Smelter loved baseball, he has a different feel toward the sport now, and it’s not so much that he grew tired of the game, but rather he became fed up with his inability to play it at what he considered his level.

Chalk that up to a shoulder injury, which frustrated the Georgia Tech pitcher/outfielder to no end.

Smelter’s athletic DNA provides additional options, however, so he has not fallen into that unique subclass of athletes whose great chance is gone with one sport up in smoke.

If you happen by the Rose Bowl practice fields this summer you may see him in the blazing sun, catching footballs and working on the nuances of his newish, old sport.

He played both games in high school at Macon’s Tattnall Square Academy, and basketball as well, so Smelter knows his way around playing surfaces.

That became obvious last fall, when he transitioned back into football after nearly four years away from the game, and started eight games for the Yellow Jackets and led Tech wide receivers with 21 receptions.

Several of his receptions — and even some of his off-the-ball plays — suggested preternatural skill on the gridiron. So, he’s changed his goals. The rising senior hopes to be drafted into the NFL next June.

“Yes sir, that’s what I’m working for,” Smelter said “When I came [back] into [football], I didn’t have any expectations, I just wanted to enjoy my last couple years in college. I’m not saying that I’m going to be drafted, but I’ve had some people tell me that [is possible]. I kind of ignore them.”

Well, not completely.

The business management major is a regular, along with fellow wide receiver Darren Waller among, at the Rose Bowl. Sometimes, the unofficial workouts include Tech quarterbacks. Sometimes, they don’t.

The work is the thing. Conditions change, but the ethic does not.

Smelter has a priority list in the offseason, and he’s quick say that when it comes to what he most wants to improve, “It would definitely be route-running. I do a lot of drills with the cones, a lot of footwork stuff.”

Not so long ago, Smelter was zeroed in not on footwork, but pitching and hitting.

While setting receiving and interception records at Tattnall Square as a receiver and a defensive back (and also played quarterback and running back), he made his greatest mark as a baseball player.

He threw two no-hitters in high school, and earned Louisville Slugger All-America honors in 2010. The Minnesota Twins drafted him in the 14th round that June.

Upon arriving at Tech, where he would play baseball on partial scholarship, he got off to a very solid start.

Fifteen times, he started in the outfield as a freshman, and he also pitched 17.1 innings while allowing just one earned run in ’11. As a sophomore, he pitched in just four games as that shoulder bothered him. As a junior, Smelter pitched in 14 games to more moderate success than he had as a freshman.

The shoulder never ceased to be an issue.

Diagnosing the problem was difficult. Eventually, a specialist said that he has multiple tears in the labrum of his pitching shoulder, but suggested that no surgery was necessary.

So, he hasn’t had an operation. Neither has he re-gained the zip he once had.

“The doctor said that it was nothing that it was just something where I would need a lot of time off,” Smelter recalled. “My velocity would increase [after time off], but as it goes on, it would go back down.”

Even after picking up football again last summer and fall, Smelter stuck with baseball. He made two relief appearances early this spring, pitching 2.2 innings of scoreless relief.

But it just wasn’t the same.

“I did well in my outings; I threw well. But the only thing that factored in my decision [to leave the baseball team and focus strictly on football] was what I wanted to be and that I wanted to have a good time.

“As much as I enjoy baseball, I wasn’t the same player I was before my shoulder. I don’t think anybody at Tech saw the real me. I had a couple appearances where I hit 92-93 mph, but not like the 96-97 I hit before. I feel like I first tweaked it in high school. I thought it was just something I would get over. It doesn’t bother me in football.”

Football rules now.

Smelter flashed enough potential last fall that his name will likely cross the watch lists of NFL scouts. He has the size (6-feet-3, 225 pounds) to remind observers of Tech predecessors Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill – who are all in the NFL.

In one way, Smelter has a benefit over Thomas and Hill. They played in head coach Paul Johnson’s run-oriented offense, where receiving opportunities can be quite limited.

The knowledge that both receivers have moved onto successful professional careers in football is just another motivator.

“You hear about it all the time. Some people say that it’s not a passing offense, or this and that. It’s an offense that if everybody does their job, we win,” Smelter said. “I think we’ll shock a lot of people this year. I imagine the next time I’ll pick up a baseball … I don’t know, maybe it will be men’s softball.”

Smelter laughed in saying that.

He’s off the diamond now, and on the gridiron. It took a while, but he feels at home there.

“It wasn’t that way from the beginning,” he said. “When I played against Elon that was the first time I had played football in four years. I wouldn’t say I was back at it. I started to feel good after the Duke game, after I caught my first touchdown [of two in the game]. Then, football started feeling natural again.”

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