ATLANTA -- Few people probably expected remarkable results when DeAndre Smelter decided to leave the Georgia Tech baseball team and join the football team in the spring of 2013. Normally such a transaction means another body for the scout team. It’s not typically an impactful move.
But Smelter isn’t the typical athlete. And two seasons after making the move, the Macon product has gone from being a mystery man to a main man. Smelter has become one of the most valuable players on the Georgia Tech team and likely will play a large role in Saturday’s game against Georgia.
“I think DeAndre has been a huge boost for us,” head coach Paul Johnson said. “He is a really good athlete who is a really tough kid. He’s a good football player, not just a good athlete.”
The Tattnall Square product has played at an all-conference level this season. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior has caught 32 passes for 671 yards, an average of 21 yards per catch, for seven touchdowns. He ranks second in the ACC in yards per catch, seventh in receiving yards per game (61.5) and is tied for third in touchdown catches.
In the last game against Clemson, Smelter caught five passes for 77 yards and one touchdown. It was good enough to earn him ACC Receiver of the Week honors.
In two seasons, Smelter has 52 catches for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns. Only the fact that he played baseball for two years likely prevented him from joining some of the program’s great receivers on the list of all-time accomplishments.
Smelter said it has taken awhile for his body to get used to the football routine again.
“Getting a whole season and offseason under my belt training wise (was a key),” he said. “Getting treatment and trying to maintain my health ... I’ve been trying to keep up with that.”
Smelter might have been the best player in the GISA when he played at Tattnall Square. He was a three-sport athlete who excelled at football, basketball and baseball. He was recruited by dozens of schools to play football, among them Georgia Tech. But in the end, he saw his future as a baseball player, so he opted to sign a baseball scholarship with the Yellow Jackets.
“Especially out of high school, my heart was set on baseball,” Smelter said.
Things were rocking along on the baseball field, as expected. He started 15 games in the outfield and one game as a pitcher during his freshman season and allowed only one earned run in 17-1/3 innings, a span that included 13 consecutive scoreless relief appearances.
But his sophomore season was a wash because of a shoulder injury that limited him primarily to pinch-running. He didn’t pitch an inning after March 1. He came back to make 16 relief appearances as a junior, but his ERA jumped to 7.02.
That was the time that Smelter approached Johnson and asked to join the football team. Smelter played in all 13 games and led all wide receivers last season with 21 catches. Two of those came in the Georgia game and both went for touchdowns.
He decided in the spring, after playing only two baseball games, to leave the baseball team and focus on football.
“It was tough to walk away from a game that I’ve been playing for so long,” he said. “But when I made the decision, I didn’t have any regrets.”
He spent the summer working with incoming quarterback Justin Thomas and has become the go-to receiver for the sophomore. It’s the same sort of connection Smelter developed a year ago with quarterback Vad Lee.
“Me and Justin always put in work getting better at the little things that could help us win games,” Smelter said. “We worked hard all summer to get it ready for the fall.”
There’s no question that Smelter’s reliability has helped Thomas develop as a quarterback. Thomas knows that the ball will be caught if he gets it close to Smelter.
“I think Justin has a lot of confidence in DeAndre, no question,” Johnson said.
Although it would be unfair to compare Smelter to the program’s other great receivers like Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas, he appears to have a good chance to play professional football. He’s rated among the top one-third of wide receivers, despite playing in a run-oriented offense.
“I think he’s going to probably have a great opportunity to play on the next level,” Johnson said.
Smelter claimed he hasn’t thought that far ahead. He’s more concerned with Georgia, the ACC championship game and the bowl game.
“We get to play some of the best teams in the country to end my career,” he said. “I want to embrace it and go out there and have fun.”