Jamari Smith just completed six days of spring workouts at quarterback for Success Unlimited Academy, but the senior-to-be knows his future, on the collegiate level, likely will be at another position.
“I really want to play wide receiver, but I know I’ve put time in at quarterback and my team needs me at quarterback, so I have to help out wherever I can,” Smith said. “The top two schools I want to go play at is the University of Alabama or Clemson.”
Nothing like setting your sights for the top, but there is a reason behind Smith’s recruiting aspirations. His two best friends are receivers at Alabama and Clemson.
“Henry Ruggs is like my godbrother/teacher,” Smith said. “When we were little, we would race in the middle of the street all the time, to see how fast we were. He would leave me every time. Every time. He would leave me by a mile.
“And my boy, J Ross at Clemson, that’s my boy. We used to play against each other a lot in the Multiplex, playing basketball, his AAU team versus ours.”
Smith, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, is a little bigger than former Central-Phenix City receiver Justyn Ross, but they’re similar in style and stature. Ross led the Tigers with 1,000 yards on 46 receptions last year in a national championship season.
Smith’s background is closer to Ruggs, who had 741 yards on 46 receptions last year at Alabama. Ruggs played youth football but gave up the sport after one season of organized football at McKee Junior High in 2012. He was a standout in basketball but returned to the gridiron in 2015 as a junior at Robert E. Lee after teammates talked him into playing.
Smith played youth football but gave up the sport after one season of organized football at Floyd Middle Magnet School as a seventh-grade quarterback in 2014. He was a standout in basketball but returned to the gridiron in 2018 as a junior at Success Unlimited after his new school elected to field a football team and coaches and teammates talked him into playing.
“He stopped (playing football) in the eighth grade,” Smith said, referring to the frequent conversations he has had with Ruggs. “After that, I followed in his footsteps. I stopped playing my seventh-grade year and just focused on basketball, like him. When he got back out there, he told me, ‘You can get back out there and do the same thing.’ I followed in his footsteps my 11th-grade year.”
Smith played a variety of positions, briefly trying his hand as a receiver early in the season – where he had 215 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions – but just as coaches discovered with Ruggs at Lee, the best success for Success came when Smith had the ball.
“If he walked up the very first day and I needed him to play a specific position right now, that would be wide receiver,” Success Unlimited coach Bill Granger said, “just because of his speed skill and his leaping ability and his size. Right now, he could walk on any (program’s) field right now and go to a wideout position and play, right now.
“If you’re asking how does he best fit the team I have, I just figured out that if the center snapped him the ball, then he had it every time, whether he was throwing it to somebody, handing it to somebody or if something went wrong, he could ad-lib. He has the ball.”
That was the idea last year in the Mustangs’ inaugural season, where Smith rushed 119 times for 1,189 yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 50 of 107 passes for 801 yards and five touchdowns with eight interceptions. Like Ruggs, there are moments on a video highlight reel where you forget Smith is playing for a first-year program or for an Alabama Independent School Association school and get lost in watching the raw athletic ability that is heads and shoulders above anyone else on the field.
His weaving, twisting, tackle-breaking reception and run for a touchdown against Monroe Academy early in the season showed how dangerous he is as a receiver. And opponents quickly learned to pull back on their pass rush when he was at quarterback to keep from flushing him into the open field.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” John Higgins said. “He has a tremendous arm. He has a lot of skills that are visible out here. If he’d learn a few fundamental things, he’d be as good as anybody.”
Higgins, who has made a reputation over the years in developing quarterbacks, was brought in as an assistant at Success Unlimited this spring, in part because of his ability to create dynamic offensive schemes. But there’s also a pressing need to fine-tune the raw athletic ability of Smith.
“That’s what is crazy,” Higgins said. “He’s such a good athlete, I’m probably messing him up, teaching him this stuff. He needs to just be on his own. I could go back to Jamarcus (Russell), I could compare him a little to the guy that was at Lanier (Tarvaris Jackson). Those would be the two I would compare him to, based on people I’ve seen.
“He has tremendous athletic ability. He can go anywhere he wants to.”
Higgins’ comparisons should not be lost on recruiters. Both Williamson High’s Russell and Sidney Lanier’s Jackson took their programs from mediocrity to championship contenders on the way to future careers in the National Football League.
“My mission is to try to get him a base if he wanted to go play college football,” Higgins said. “We’re going to do a lot with him. We’re going to run the ball with him – bootleg, sprint out, move the pocket – but I just want to give him a fundamental understanding if he decides he wants to play (college) football because he’ll have the opportunity to do it because he’s such a good athlete.”
There are multiple problems with Smith from a recruiting analyst’s perspective. He started his high school career as a basketball player at Sidney Lanier but soon had to withdraw from that program and enroll in Success Unlimited Academy in January 2018.
“Just bad surroundings,” Smith offered. “I needed to be in a more positive space.”
Granger, the school’s athletic director, has seen a drastic change in his star over the past year, where he dedicated himself to learning football (like Ruggs), maintained his star status for a championship contending basketball program (like Ruggs) and even took up baseball at the request of teammates (like Ruggs).
“I think Jamari is coming around,” Granger said. “He is really dedicating himself to becoming the best football player that he can be. This is his senior year and he’s had some interest shown in him because his athletic skills are special. In football, there is a tremendous upside. He has the God-given ability to take this to a very high level.”
Word of mouth has generated interest in Smith from several mid-majors as well as Tennessee. Clemson has put in a few phone calls as well. His troubles at Lanier appear to be in his past.
“When you see new people, better vibes, it makes you want to change yourself, be a better person,” Smith said. “When you’re a better person around friends, they become family.”
On the field, there are red flags as well. His work in the weight room is limited – Success has a few weights but is in the process of building a building dedicated to weight lifting – and he has never attended a summer camp in any sport. The numbers that capture most recruiters’ attention aren’t available.
“He timed out at (4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash on) grass on our stop watch, but if you put him on a track, it would be less than that,” Granger noted. When asked about his vertical leap, he referenced Smith’s performance on the basketball court. “There is no comparison. I’ve seen a ton of excellent basketball players. I have yet to see one that could get off the floor quicker and get as high with as little effort.”
And while most of the talk is on offense, there is no question that an athlete of his caliber could make an impact on the defensive side of the ball at the collegiate level as well.
“If he put on 30 pounds, he’ll be that edge rusher that earns a gazillion dollars,” Granger pointed out.
Smith prefers playing safety, where he had 35 solo tackles, 17 assists and one interception last season.
“I like to fly,” he said. “If the ball is in the air, I know I can get there.”
Smith’s best days lie ahead of him. Just as Henry Ruggs dazzled recruiters in the fall of 2016 as he started his second full year of organized football and showed the improvement from year one to year two, Smith’s commitment to his upcoming senior season may be the deciding factor in landing a scholarship offer from Alabama or Clemson.
“This year, I feel like I should be a better quarterback and a better team player,” Smith said. “Last year, I really didn’t have much to work with, but my guys always ended up surprising me. I feel good that they all came back home with me, we’ve got new players dedicated to it and everybody is more dedicated this year than they ever were, so we should have a better year.
“Championship. Everybody is looking good, no one is showing slack, we’ve got returners who are leaders and everyone is holding everyone accountable.”