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Alabama Wide Receiver DeVonta Smith Cements Himself as an All-Time CFB Great

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith leaves the field after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

He left the field with a towel drenched over his mangled right hand. Another towel was dangling from his mouth. For a night as magical as this, it was a cruel way for DeVonta Smith’s dazzling college football season and career to end. 

It took one hit—an awkward tackle to begin the second half—to end Smith’s evening. From there, he took an extended stay in the injury tent before vanishing to the locker room. And like that, it was all over. 

What happened in the previous 30 minutes, however, is something the sport will be processing for some time. While Alabama was without the best wideout to ever play at the program for much of the second half, the damage was done. Not just to his dislocated finger, but to Ohio State’s defense before that. To the scoreboard. To history. 

Smith, having collected his Heisman less than a week earlier, validated a historic moment with a dominating, overpowering performance to cap a dominating, overpowering year. 

Alabama won. Of course it did. The best team with the best offense and the best head coach to ever walk a sideline was too much for Ohio State. The Tide’s 52-24 victory over the Buckeyes, in many ways, was a continuation of what was on display all season. 

The first half, a dominant 35-17 start, was due largely to Smith. In a single half, he caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He glided around the football field, as he often does. 

He delivered a smooth toe-tap catch on the sideline. He outgained Ohio State’s offense all by his lonesome in the first half, which is not normal no matter how normal he made it look in this game and the ones that came before it. 

LeBron James couldn’t help but take notice. Davante Adams, one of the best wideouts in the NFL, joined him. Smith’s former teammate, wideout Jerry Jeudy, took the praise a step further.

“Greatest WR to play college football,” Jeudy wrote

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

At this point, it’s hard to argue. Sure, we’re all guilty of being prisoners of the moment. The problem with this argument is that this wasn’t just a moment. It was another moment in a long line of moments. 

In summer 2019, I spent a morning with Smith inside the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility. He was quiet. In fact, he was uncomfortable talking about himself and his legacy. 

At the time, he was the third- or fourth-best wide receiver on a team that also featured Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. 

He was known for a catch so important that in Tuscaloosa, it will forever be known as The Catch. When Tua Tagovailoa found Smith, both true freshmen at the time, on a 41-yard touchdown to win a national championship in overtime three years ago, his legacy was cemented. 

If it all ended there, in a single moment, his legacy would have been celebrated for generations to follow. But the thought of that was not something Smith was willing to process. In fact, that catch was a boat anchor. 

“That book has already been written,” Smith said, trying to distance himself from the moment. “It’s time to write another one.”

After two seasons, one enormous catch and modest statistics, Smith exploded in 2019 with 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. Despite being one of four incredible options, he blossomed into the best of the bunch. Rather than declare for the NFL and join Jeudy and Ruggs, he made the surprising decision to return to Alabama. 

As brilliant as his 2019 season was, his 2020 effort was unlike any the position has seen in some time. The injury to Waddle early changed everything. With more opportunities, Smith delivered in a way few ever have.

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

He rewrote the SEC history book, setting the single-season and career receiving yard marks. He did the same with the single-season and career touchdown records. 

Smith became the first wideout to win the Heisman since 1991. And although he played only a half Monday night, he set the record for most receptions and tied the record for most receiving touchdowns in a championship game.  

All told, Smith finished this season with 117 catches, 1,856 yards and 25 total touchdowns in only 13 games. It’s hard to capture that kind of year and impact in the appropriate words or numbers.

It’s even harder when you compare Smith to the many great players, both at his position and others, who came before him at Alabama.  

Normally, greatness in Tuscaloosa is quantified with size and speed and physical gifts refined at the squat rack. Greatness here, at the most dominant program in college football, is typically accompanied by bulging muscles and cartoonish skill sets.

Julio Jones. Derrick Henry. Football players who played and looked like superheroes. Those types of players have molded Alabama into the dynasty it is—a place where some of the greatest athletes in the country have congregated, for the better part of a decade, to see just how far they can push it. 

Smith is not that. Even now, having been built by Bama over the past four years, he finishes his college career as a lanky, rangy wideout. He’s far less lanky than he was when he arrived, although his brilliance will never be captured by his size, his 40 time or the normal qualifiers for football excellence.   

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

He leaves Alabama with the greatest catch, the greatest season and the greatest half in program history. He leaves with a Heisman, having cracked a barrier we didn’t think was possible for a wide receiver. He leaves with two national championships, having been an integral piece in both. 

He exits Alabama and college football as one of the most decorated players to ever play and with a career that delivered in ways few have from start to finish. And he does so with an injured right hand. It was the only thing that could stop him this season.

After the game, with his hands tucked behind his back and a national championship shirt draped over his shoulder, Smith was asked about his year. 

“Unbelievable,” he said on the broadcast. “We just finished writing our story. That was the whole thing [about] us coming back. Just finishing the story that we wanted to write. And we did that.”

The book could’ve been written after one catch. After three seasons. But it wasn’t. 

And now, after a career and legacy matched by few, at a program where such dominance is regular, Smith will leave as one of the greatest to ever play. Not just the greatest at Alabama or the greatest to ever play his position.  

Given all we’ve seen, those qualifiers no longer feel appropriate. This was something more. And although it ended earlier than it should’ve, what a story it was. 

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