University of Tennessee senior football player and Ooltewah High graduate Jacques Smith has had to dodge more than a few offensive linemen during his career with the Vols.
He has also had to battle a broken thumb in August, multiple coaching changes, some disappointing seasons for Tennessee, and trying to maintain lofty expectations after being named the No. 1 high school prospect in the state by some publications.
In many ways, his career has mirrored that of the up-and-down ride of the Tennessee team as a whole.
But everything seems to be coming together for him personally on the field as the season winds down Saturday night with the 4-7 Vols facing Kentucky in the season finale.
He had an 18-yard interception for a touchdown against Auburn on Nov. 9 – the first of his college career – and he had a season best six tackles on Senior Night last Saturday against Vanderbilt.
“It was a dream come true,” he said this week of the interception.
Of course, Tennessee as a team did not have a dream come true, as it lost both games under first-year coach Butch Jones. As a result, Smith’s late season personal accomplishments have been a little bittersweet.
“It has been adversity,” he said on Tuesday afternoon as a group of reporters crowded around him following a practice on the Robert E. White indoor field in Knoxville. “It’s not everything that I imagined, but it’s everything that’s going to make me a better man.”
Smith’s journey toward getting to play at Tennessee in front of more than 100,000 at Neyland Stadium began way back in the seventh grade at Hunter Middle School. Although he was already a fan of the Tennessee Vols, he was admittedly not as crazy about the sport itself, at least regarding playing it.
“The previous year, I didn’t go out, and all of my friends played and they kept telling me, ‘You need to play,’ he said. “I never dreamed of actually playing the game because my family was a basketball family.
“I decided to go out that summer and, truth be told, here I am now.”
His former Ooltewah coach, Benny Monroe, said Smith grew into a great player in high school and had unlimited potential.
“He had probably as much talent as any kid I had coached defensively as far as rushing the quarterback,” he said.
Coach Monroe still remembers when former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, with whom Coach Monroe has become well acquainted over the years, came into his office at Ooltewah to see him while Smith was still an underclassman.
“He (Jacques) walked into the office and Phil smiled and stood up and said, ‘You’re coming to Tennessee,’ “ said coach Monroe, who also led Cleveland to three consecutive state championships in the early 1990s.
By the time Smith was a senior and had committed to the Vols, Lane Kiffin had become the coach of Tennessee, but he left to go to Southern Cal during the January that Smith enrolled.
As a result, Smith played his first three seasons under Derek Dooley and his senior year under Butch Jones, who is three head coaches removed from the first Tennessee coach to try and lure him to play for the Vols.
Although Smith played linebacker during his junior year at Tennessee, he played defensive line the other three years.
One physical challenge Smith has found at Tennessee is that he weighs around 245 pounds and is trying to play against offensive linemen weighing 300 pounds or more.
“He had to redo himself in college,” coach Monroe said. “He was used to running down the line inside and making the tackle. He has to stay back in college. That’s been a transition. He has always been better moving.”
Coach Monroe actually thinks linebacker is likely where Smith can have the best chance of playing in the pros, where he can take advantage of the agility he has from good foot speed and from being an accomplished high school shot putter and discus thrower.
Coach Monroe said Smith also has the right attributes off the field.
“I never had to worry about Jacques,” he said. “He was always first class and never got into any problems.
“You can’t help but love the guy because of his personality. He’s a super kid.”
Coach Monroe said he and his wife, Jane, still keep in contact with Smith. She texts him weekly before he plays, Coach Monroe said, and Smith regularly stops by to see them.
They also saw him earlier this fall, when his high school jersey number – 36 – became the first in Ooltewah High football history to be retired.
This Saturday, he will be wearing No. 55 for the last time for Tennessee in Lexington, as the Vols hope to help coach Jones’ first year of his rebuilding project end on a happy note.
“It’s very imperative that we win,” Smith said. “To be on the first (Tennessee) team with eight losses, it will be a big devastation to me as well as these other seniors.
“I’m sure we’re going to do whatever we can to get this win."
Regardless of what happens Saturday, he is optimistic about the future for the Tennessee football program and hopes he can one day say he helped lay the foundation – brick by brick, of course -- for another great Vol run.
“I just can’t wait until the future and see what Tennessee does, because we’ve done a lot of things to change the path,” he said. “We’ve been through a struggle lately, but there’s a bright future ahead for Tennessee.”