It’s no secret that this year’s Yellow Jacket offense could very well be one of the best to ever play at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Redshirt sophomore and starting quarterback Justin Thomas has received national praise for the efficiency with which he has run the triple option, but what might surprise casual fans is Tech’s success passing the ball.
Thomas averages 20.1 yards per completion, the highest in the nation, and he has two important players to thank for that: senior wide receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller.
Smelter and Waller have accounted for about 60% of Tech’s receiving touchdowns and yards this year and provide a constant big-play threat that keeps defenses honest and allows Yellow Jacket rushers to average nearly 6 yards per carry.
Waller and Smelter have taken strikingly different paths to reach this point in their careers. Waller, after signing with Tech as a 3-star receiver from North Cobb High School, has been catching passes for Paul Johnson since his freshman year in 2011.
Waller’s 6’5” frame also allowed him to play basketball in high school, though football was the clear choice for him in college.
The BA major has played in almost every game on the Flats, but did not reach double digit receptions in a season until last year. Waller’s height, athleticism and experience had many fans expecting a breakout performance in 2014.
While he hasn’t had as many touchdowns as Smelter the past two seasons, he has shown flashes of a high-caliber receiver at various points this season and is an outstanding blocker in the run game.
In contrast, Smelter was actually drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft out of Tattnall Square Academy in Macon, where he played baseball, football, and basketball. Smelter was an elite pitching prospect, boasting a 95 m.p.h. fastball, and even had legendary agent Scott Boras as his pre-draft advisor.
Instead, he chose to sign with the Yellow Jackets. The original plan with Boras was for Smelter to go to college for three years and then declare for the draft similar to MLB superstars from Tech, Mark Teixeira and Matt Wieters. Shoulder injuries plagued his three seasons under Coach Danny Hall and he was not the pitcher he was when he arrived on campus.
He decided in April 2013 to join the football team at a position in need of a consistent playmaker: wide receiver.
Smelter made an immediate impact by catching two touchdown passes at Duke in his first career game and made a highlight-reel catch over two Pittsburgh defenders to clinch the Jackets’ 2013 homecoming victory.
Smelter has been even better this year with four 100+ yard games, six touchdown receptions, and a whopping 23.7 yards per catch.
Waller is also producing well with three touchdown catches and 18.5 yards per catch. Their success might come as a surprise to outsiders, but the duo will be the first to tell you that it’s no surprise to them.
“We expected a big year coming in; we put in countless hours of work over the summer.” Waller said. “We had a lot of guys come out and put in a lot of extra work by themselves. All that work has translated into this season.”
Smelter, meanwhile, cited his decision to quit baseball in the spring and to focus full-time on football as a key reason for his success.
He was able to practice two or three times a day over the summer, working out, running routes, and watching film with the other receivers.
Another factor for Smelter is having a year of Tech football under his belt; he feels that he has made major strides in his knowledge of the playbook and it has shown in his on-field performance.
After losing back-to-back games to Duke and North Carolina, the Jackets responded well with strong performances against Pittsburgh and Virginia. Smelter exploded for 107 yards and a touchdown on just 4 receptions against Virginia, while Waller also caught a touchdown on a 11-yard fade route into the endzone where he outmanned the Virgina defensive back.
“It feels good to get back on track.” Smelter said. “It’s a close race [in the ACC] this year, we really need to keep the effort up.” With Clemson and Georgia coming up after N.C. State this weekend, the two soon-to-be graduates will urge the team to play with a lot of heart to send the seniors out on a positive note.
The two are also very optimistic about next year’s receiving corps, which will include only one player who has started a game before.
“When we’re out there going through drills, we see how much they’re getting better every week.” Waller explained, “They’re improving on everything, becoming more aware, and improving how they’re coming out of their routes. I know they’re gonna do great things next year.”
Wide receivers Coach Al “Buzz” Preston always looks for the seniors to set a good example for the younger players by working hard and setting the bar high for every drill.
Sophomore Michael Summers looks to be the number one receiver in 2015, followed by freshmen Ricky Jeune, Qua Searcy, and Antonio Messick. But for now, it’s up to Smelter and Waller to continue their explosive play and lead the Jackets to their first season with more than 8 wins since 2009.
Smelter and Waller have grown close over the past few years, especially because they knew each other before Smelter joined the football team.
The two are very competitive as well and love finding ways to compete in almost anything. Video games are a popular source of well-deserved rest from the arduous football season; Smelter claims to be able to beat Waller in any video game, especially FIFA ‘15.
Both receivers plan on preparing for the NFL Draft together after the season, but are also focused on helping the younger receivers prepare to step up to the plate next year. They look to join fomer wideouts Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill as Tech wideouts drafted in the NFL.