With a little more than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak for Boston College football.
It was the long-awaited, much-hyped matchup against Notre Dame at Fenway Park. But for most of the game, the 3-7 Eagles looked outmatched by the Fighting Irish. The offense just could not muster up any dazzling—or even mediocre—plays, putting the Eagles behind 19-3 with 10:30 remaining in the game. The buzz in Fenway came from Notre Dame’s faithful. BC fans looked glum and dejected.
On first and 10, the Eagles were lined up at their own 20-yard line. The quarterback called for the ball. Running back Myles Willis, standing to his left, cut toward him. The quarterback faked a handoff and took a step to his left. His offensive line gave him a present in the form of a beautiful, wide-open hole right in front of him. He took off running and never looked back. At his own 45 yard line, three Notre Dame players clamored to bring him down. They never even came close. He dodged the Fighting Irish with ease, cutting across the field and taking it all the way home for the score.
It was an 80-yard touchdown run, an electrifying play. Fans cheered raucously from the stands. The team celebrated on the sidelines. The band played a rousing rendition of “For Boston.” And although BC would go on to lose the game, the touchdown run was cemented as one of the brightest spots in a pretty dull season for the Eagles.
The quarterback in question was Jeff Smith. He had stepped in as starting quarterback after Darius Wade broke his ankle against Florida State. Throughout the year he split time with fellow freshmen John Fadule and Troy Flutie. Smith had not started the Notre Dame game, but he sure energized it. Smith was just that much faster than everyone else. He made it look almost easy.
Five months later, Smith was stretching on the sidelines of Alumni Field. It was a warm April day, a sure sign of summer’s approach. The Eagles were just about to play the Jay McGillis Memorial Spring Football Game. He got up, ran a few sprints, stretched a little more—your average warm-up.
There was a relaxed atmosphere in the stadium. A few of BC’s most dedicated fans had turned up for the game, but the stands were mostly empty. Throughout the week, the coaching staff stressed that the game was more for fun than anything else. The two captains were injured players who had chosen the teams themselves. It was never supposed to be too competitive.
Smith was on the Gold team, so he wore a white jersey. When the time came, he lined up on the field, itching for the play to start. And when it did, he took off downfield. But this was no quarterback sneak.
Smith—the quarterback who had dazzled everyone with his lightning-fast speed and agility—was no longer a quarterback.
Instead, he was a wide receiver.
On offense, Jeff Smith is an elite skilled athlete ... We are excited about that. Steve Addazio
Early in his high school career, Smith played wideout as well as quarterback. But when it came time to commit to a college, he knew he wanted to be behind center. He had a few offers from programs, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, that expected him to change positions. Despite the doubt from coaches, Smith knew he could compete as a quarterback at the college level.
Enter BC. Head coach Steve Addazio and former offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, the man who recruited Smith, had complete faith in him as a signal caller. After all, this was the type of guy Addazio loves as his quarterback—the Eagles succeeded with Tyler Murphy in 2014, and Addazio had the incomparable Tim Tebow at Florida. When Smith was recruited, there was no expectation that he would have to change positions at any point in order to get playing time. This appealed to Smith, and it soon became official: Smith was an Eagle.
But last offseason, circumstances changed drastically for BC. Wade rehabbed all winter, determined to overcome the ankle injury. Kentucky’s Patrick Towles announced he was transferring to BC. Anthony Brown—a long sought-after recruit of Addazio’s—arrived as a grayshirt in spring 2016.
What had once been unthinkable was suddenly a reality for Smith. He was going to transition from quarterback to wide receiver.
Smith was joining a receiving corps that could have used some help. The wide receivers had an underwhelming season in 2015, contributing to BC’s offensive woes. It was a young squad, mainly freshmen and sophomores. The revolving door of quarterbacks did not help the receivers either—they did not even have a strong connection to one individual quarterback. The lack of consistency, experience, and connection meant that they could not establish the trust necessary to excel and dominate in games.
Smith’s official debut as a wide receiver came in the spring game. He proved that his hands were not too rusty, hauling in four passes from Towles for 51 yards. But at times he did not look comfortable with the new responsibilities—especially on special teams. As a punt returner, Smith did not look confident enough to make a real impact. And he waved for fair catch when sent out to return the opening kickoff of the second half. But overall, Smith’s performance was solid, especially considering that it was the beginning of his transition to wide receiver.
The corps is a little more seasoned now, a bit more accustomed to adversity. Charlie Callinan, a redshirt junior who put up strong numbers against tough opponents Notre Dame and Clemson last season, will probably be a big contributor this year. Last year, Thadd Smith’s 17 receptions for 233 yards were good enough to make him the team leader in both categories. He will be another key member of the receiving corps this year.
The wide receivers did not have an easy time last season. They have weathered the worst a football season can give them—hopefully. And after an offseason of hard work, they are ready to show off some real results.
“We’re working a lot, watching film, and so we’ve really improved as a group, too,” Smith said.
And although they have all worked together, one person in particular has stood out to Smith as a mentor. Callinan has been a role model for Smith as he adjusts to the new position.
“[Callinan] is a great leader, so I’ve been getting help from him,” he said.
Time is ticking closer and closer to BC’s season-opening matchup against Georgia Tech in Dublin, Ireland. That will be Smith’s first real opportunity to prove that he can make a difference as a wide receiver.
Smith looks good now, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy transition. Playing wide receiver is a whole different ball game, and it has been most obvious for Smith in the faster pace of play. But Smith has challenged himself to adjust to the speed, and after a full spring and summer he is more than prepared to face the competition.
Already a speedy player to begin with, he is running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash. Right now Smith is even faster than he was when he outran the Notre Dame competition for the touchdown back at Fenway Park last November.
Couldn't say enough about QB turned WR Jeff Smith, who went from 170 to 194 lbs and runs a sub-4.4. https://t.co/6bMmud10Ha
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) July 26, 2016
He also bulked up more than 20 pounds over the offseason. Now listed at 194 pounds, Smith is ready for a more physical style of play.
Addazio also excited about Jeff Smith, with a sub-4.4 and up to 194 pounds. No more crumpling on tackles, says he's gonna hit back now.
— Michael Sullivan (@MichaelJSully) August 11, 2016
It was never supposed to be like this. Smith was recruited as a quarterback. Part of BC’s appeal was that he would be able to play the position he preferred. Nobody expected a transfer and recruit to shunt Smith from quarterback to wide receiver. But despite the unexpected change, Smith has kept a positive attitude. He is not focused on himself. He has not allowed himself to wallow and think about what might have been. Instead, he is thinking of the team and working hard to do whatever he can to contribute this season.
“It hasn’t been frustrating,” Smith said. “However I can help the team is good.”