Written by Zachary Gartin
When you think of Wide Receiver U. at the college level, who do you think of? Alabama, with Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley, and recently Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy? Baylor, who has had Corey Coleman, Terrance Williams, Kendall Wright, and now Denzel Mims? Maybe LSU with Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, D.J. Chark, and now Justin Jefferson? Or Clemson, who has had Deandre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Hunter Renfrow, and now Tee Higgins?
All of these are obvious answers to the question of who is WRU. But what if I throw you an option from left field. This school is not the best of the wide receiver factories, but it is a place that has consistently gotten players drafted at the wide receiver position. They have had a wide receiver drafted in 6 of the last 8 drafts. That school is South Carolina.
The South Carolina Gamecocks have had Wide Receivers like Alshon Jeffery, Deebo Samuel, and Bryan Edwards drafted in the last 8 years, and there is one wide receiver on the team currently looking to continue the trend.
His name is Shi Smith.
Shi Smith is a 21-year-old senior at South Carolina who has primarily functioned as the number three or number two receiver behind the likes of Deebo Samuel his Sophomore year and Bryan Edwards his junior year. Despite that, he has played in 34 games and started 26 of them.
Throughout his tenure in South Carolina, Smith has been primarily a slot receiver who has ventured to the outside role from time to time. His numbers have been decent, as he has put up 1162 yards and six touchdowns on 88 receptions over the last two years. In his junior year, he saw a loss of projection as his yards per reception dropped 3.6 yards and had 184 less yards in 2019. A lot of this can be traced back to struggles at the quarterback position, as Ryan Hilinski averaged 5.8 yards per attempt (Y/A) in 2019 compared to Jake Bentley’s 8.2 Y/A in 2018. This drastic change in quarterbacking philosophy hurt the entire wide receiver room, as there were around 800 yards lost from 2018 to 2019. Ryan Hilinski is the incumbent starter, but a quarterback competition (if there is a training camp) will be taking place to determine who will be throwing passes to Smith in the fall.
But no matter who is throwing Smith passes in the fall, to be drafted in the spring he needs to have the traits and skills worthy of being drafted. I believe he does.
To start, Smith is a technician when it comes to how he approaches the game of football. Smith is not a burner, but he does have some quickness he can use to create separation at the top of routes and in releases. To show this, I will use film clips from some of the games I have studied.
Smith has not had to face a ton of press-man coverage through his career due to his role in the slot, but he has shown in limited reps that he can be effective against it. Here is an example of him doing this well.
I love this clip because it’s a textbook release. The first thing he does is attacks the cornerbacks’ leverage and feet, forcing him to get on his heels. Smith then jabs outside while still moving forward, creating a situation where the cornerback has to react to the outside and put his inside hand out to jam. When the corner does that, Smith swipes that hand away and quickly moves inside. This is high-quality teach tape for any wide receiver that doesn’t have elite speed and wants to learn press releases.
This next clip is from his game in 2019 against North Carolina. Smith thrives in the slot and has just enough speed to threaten safeties over the top of him.
In this clip, Smith does a good job of showcasing his route running. First, he works inside to avoid contact from the underneath defender. This doesn’t allow the defense to disrupt the timing of the route and allows him to get leverage on the safety who started the play with inside leverage. The next thing he does is threaten the safety vertical, causing the safety to flip his hips and create a blind spot for the safety, which Smith then uses to cut across the field and catch the pass.
In this next clip against Alabama, Smith is in the slot at the bottom of the screen. The defensive back isn’t threatened by Smith’s speed, so he squats on the route. When Smith sees this, he gets on the defensive backs toes and Smith makes sure he has a two way go. Then Smith threatens the defensive back inside before quickly going outside and swiping the defensive backs hand away to make sure he was open. Smith doesn’t have to use speed to win as he has the tools in his route running kit to win in multiple different ways.
Hands and Ability After the Catch
Smith’s’ best trait is probably his hands. No matter the situation, if the ball is in his catch radius he is probably going to come down with it.
Smith has fantastic focus when going up for the ball, even when blanketed by two defenders. He then does a good job letting his momentum turn him so his back is towards the defenders and they can’t make a play on the ball.
This play is from 2017 and it shows that even as a freshman, Smith can make tough catches through traffic with great focus and hands. Smith rarely drops passes and catches almost everything thrown his way.
Smith can also make a couple of people miss with a little bit of wiggle and has just enough speed to turn some medium plays into long runs or touchdowns, like in this clip against Tennessee.
He can even make some people miss with quickness and suddenness. In this clip, he pulls out a pretty nasty spin move to gain a couple of extra yards before he stops on a dime and gets another guy to miss.
Both of these clips are against Tennesse so let me give you another clip, from his game against North Carolina at the beginning of the 2019 season. Smith may have stepped out of bounds, but his solid change of direction skills allow him to snake his way to a five-yard gain.
Shi Smith will never be a dynamic game-changer with his YAC ability. He lacks the top-end speed and elite quickness or strength to consistently make something out of nothing at the next level. But there is enough there to believe that he can take advantage of some bad angles and still get some yards after the catch.
To be draftable, especially without elite traits, you have to be productive. I think Shi Smith is stepping into a situation to be just that next season. With over 150 total receptions from the 2019 season graduated (Bryan Edwards, Tarien Feaster, etc.), there is a big hole in the South Carolina offense. Shi Smith, of all the receivers on the team, has the most career receptions with 117. The next two returning pass-catchers have 37 career receptions each.
The role Shi Smith looks to be stepping into next season is also a desirable one for draft-eligible wide receivers. Deebo Samuel, a second-round pick, had 70 total touches in 2018 and Bryan Edwards, a third-round draft pick, had 73 total touches in 2019. Shi Smith, if he had had 73 touches in 2019, would have had a stat line around 3.2 touchdowns and 788 total yards. And if we go a little bit further back to when he had a more aggressive quarterback in 2018, his stat line would look like this.
73 touches, 6.5 touchdowns, and 1095 total yards.
I doubt Smith’s production will look like this in 2020 with Ryan Hilinski in at quarterback, but the possibility for upper-level production is there.
Will he get drafted?
Shi Smith is a technician that, while he lacks elite quickness or deep speed, can find creative ways to find separation and create openings for a quarterback to find him. And even in tough, contested situations, Smith will usually come away with the football. His lack of elite traits in the size and speed categories will hurt him when it comes to the draft process, but he has an opportunity to produce and put out a lot of good tape against top level corners like Patrick Surtain II, Caleb Stingley Jr., and other SEC defenses. If he can produce, I would expect him to go on Day Three of the NFL Draft to a team that needs a receiver like Jamison Crowder or Adam Humphries. Shi Smith has the tools to be the next wide receiver drafted from South Carolina and keep this underrated wide receiver factory going for at least one more year.