Football is a weird sport in that we get more excited about the guy who throws the passes than the guy who scores the points. The NBA’s assist leader is rarely considered the league’s best player, unless he is also a prolific scorer. But in football, quarterbacks get all the glory. The player who catches a pass in the end zone can do a little dance, and might even star in a few commercials. But receivers’ time in the sun is as fleeting as their 40-yard-dash time, while quarterbacks are seen as timeless. Twelve of the past 13 NFL MVP awards have gone to quarterbacks; a wide receiver has never won. Even if a receiver is incredible, his success is often viewed as a function of the greatness of the guy throwing the passes.
No wide receiver has won the Heisman Trophy since 1991, when Desmond Howard did it—and the most iconic play of his Heisman campaign was a punt return. Since 2000, only six receivers have even ranked among the top five in Heisman voting; two of those six, Michael Crabtree and Dede Westbrook, finished behind their own team’s respective quarterbacks. (Yes, people really thought Graham Harrell was more spectacular than Crabtree at Texas Tech.) The last receiver with a legitimate shot to win the Heisman was Larry Fitzgerald, who racked up 92 catches for 1,672 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns for Pitt in 2003. He scored a touchdown in all 12 of the Panthers’ regular-season games—yet he still finished second behind Jason White, who probably isn’t even one of your five favorite Oklahoma quarterbacks.
But the pattern of great college receivers getting overlooked is finally set to change, as Heisman voters appear poised to give the award to Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. Smith is expected to take home the Heisman over Bama quarterback and fellow finalist Mac Jones. It’s always tough to determine which impossibly gifted Crimson Tide player should receive the most credit for the team’s success. But through Smith’s nearly flawless play, he has emerged as the cornerstone of one of the best offenses in college football history, shining the brightest in a field of diamonds.
Smith has had a remarkable career. He ranks sixth all time in career receiving touchdowns (43), and he’s been brilliant in high-profile moments. As a freshman, he reeled in the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game. As a senior, he leads the FBS in virtually every major receiving category, and could score more touchdowns next Monday night en route to a second national title. He deserves to cap his time on campus by winning college football’s most prestigious award.
Think about what it takes for a receiver to be clearly recognized as the best player in the sport. That player has to be so dominant that it’s immediately obvious he’s more responsible for his team’s success than his quarterback. When Tim Brown won the Heisman in 1987, he accounted for almost 60 percent of Notre Dame’s receiving yards, and only one other player on the roster caught a touchdown pass. When Howard won it in 1991, he had 19 of Michigan’s 25 receiving touchdowns, plus two rushing touchdowns and two return touchdowns.
Smith has passed that test. He plays for the best offense in college football, as Nick Saban’s program has completed its transformation from a squad led by a dominant defense to one that wins behind an explosive passing attack. Despite facing an all-SEC schedule (which hypothetically pitted Bama exclusively against the best teams in the sport), the Tide are averaging 48.2 points per game. (Saban’s alma mater, Kent State, technically boasts the best scoring offense in football, as it averaged 49.8 points per game over a four-game MAC schedule, but I think we can safely say that Bama is better.) Last season LSU set the all-time Division 1 record for points in a season, with 726 in 15 games. Alabama won’t play 15 games, but it’d be on pace to score 723—and it did that without playing games against FCS opponents or Vanderbilt. This season is too weird to contextualize properly, but the 2020 Tide have a case for being the most prolific offense of all time.
And Smith is that offense’s best player. He has 20 of the Tide’s 37 receiving touchdowns. He has 1,641 receiving yards, while nobody else on the roster has more than 835.
You could argue that Jones is the guy throwing the ball to Smith, and therefore deserves the bulk of the credit. Watch Smith play, though, and it feels like he earns each of his touches through his spectacular skills. As Smith gets open play after play, no matter the coverage, no matter the route, it becomes clear that his talents are more valuable than Jones’s ability to hit him. Smith gets so wide open that Jones can miss on passes and Smith still turns them into touchdowns:
Smith is exceptional at beating defenders at the line of scrimmage and getting behind the defense for scores.
Stop us if you've heard this before: Mac Jones threw a touchdown to Devonta Smith. pic.twitter.com/dPcvSk78w3— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 6, 2020
He’s also capable of coming inside, catching the ball over the middle, and outrunning the defense all the way to the end zone.
And when he does need to make contested catches—which is rare, because he’s so open all the time—he is sensational.
It’s been a strange season, with teams and conferences playing differing numbers of games, but Smith’s sheer statistical domination is unreal. He leads the nation in receiving yards by almost 500 (he has 1,641; nobody else has more than 1,193); he leads the nation in receptions by 19 (he has 105; nobody else has more than 86). He also leads the FBS in receiving touchdowns.
In the second half of the national championship game in January 2018, with Alabama trailing Georgia, Saban unleashed an entire offense full of future NFL players who had previously been on the bench: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris, and receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and Smith. Sure, the Tide already had stars on the field—Calvin Ridley, for one—but they weren’t performing, so Saban turned to a crop of freshmen who were familiar with each other by virtue of repping together in practice. It was a remarkable flex of recruiting power that brought the Tide a title, with Tagovailoa throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Smith.
At the time, I thought Tua was the star, and players like Smith were just lucky to play with him. Tagovailoa openly recruited Smith to Alabama, and Smith also made an unspectacular catch on the miraculous garbage-time touchdown that made Tua famous. When I interviewed Smith after he made his national-championship-winning catch, he simply explained that he had a connection with Tua, and was likely to get open running four verts against Cover 2. He didn’t seem spectacular—just a cog in a machine.
When Ridley left Bama after the 2017 season, that perception seemed to bear out. Smith was fifth on the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, behind Jeudy, Ruggs, freshman wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, and tight end Irv Smith Jr. Nothing about Smith particularly stood out. Ruggs and Waddle were faster; Jeudy was stronger. Smith was 6-foot-1 and weighed a shade over 170 pounds, ridiculously skinny for a receiver. The last receiver taller than 6 feet and lighter than 180 pounds to get picked in the NFL draft was Snoop Minnis in 2001.
But in 2019, Smith emerged as Bama’s best player. He became the Tide’s go-to option on deep passes—even though he was slower than some of the team’s other wideouts. He was unguardable in press coverage—even though his slight frame should’ve theoretically made him easy to bully. He had only two drops all season, and led Alabama in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He torched LSU All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He decided to come back for his senior year, even as Tagovailoa, Jeudy, and Ruggs all went pro.
Entering this season, Smith shared the Bama receiving spotlight with Waddle, an absolute burner of a receiver. Through the Tide’s first five games, Smith and Waddle each averaged 111 yards per game. Then Waddle fractured his ankle against Tennessee. Normally, when one star receiver goes down, life gets harder for the other top option, who becomes the sole focus of opposing defensive coverages. But despite the increased focus, Smith has excelled. Since Waddle got hurt, Smith has averaged 155 receiving yards and 2.3 touchdowns per game. He had 203 yards and four touchdowns against Mississippi State, 231 yards and three scores against LSU, 184 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC title game against Florida, and 130 yards and three scores in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Notre Dame. As the schedule has gotten harder, he’s only gotten more productive.
Early in his career, it seemed Smith’s success was driven by his connection with Tagovailoa, a five-star prospect who became a top-five NFL draft pick. But Smith has put up even better numbers with Jones, a quarterback who isn’t a lock to be a future first-rounder. Smith also caught touchdown passes from another eventual NFL starter in Jalen Hurts, and another consensus five-star prospect in Bryce Young. The quarterbacks don’t matter; Smith always produces.
The 2018 and 2019 Alabama teams may have had the greatest collection of receiving talent ever assembled on a college roster. Jeudy and Ruggs were both first-round picks, and Smith and Waddle will be too. It’s telling that Smith performed best when all three of those guys were out of the picture. It proves that he wasn’t merely getting open because defenses didn’t know who to guard.
The bar for a receiver to be considered the sport’s best player is absurdly high. What’s most impressive is not that Smith cleared it, it’s that he did so rather easily. Maybe his brilliance is a sign that we should give more credit to receivers instead of giving it to quarterbacks by default. Or maybe we should simply marvel at Smith, a player who is smaller and slower than most of his teammates but who proved to be the best player on one of the best offenses college football has ever seen.