Tennessee has had few football players as easy to promote as guard Trey Smith.
He was first-team All-SEC last season and a preseason All-American this year. He’s a leader on and off the field. And he’s a great human-interest story.
The story comes with a twist.
A more predictable story would have had him turning pro after the 2019 season, especially since his football career was twice interrupted by a health issue. Smith missed a portion of the 2018 season after blood clots developed in his lungs.
Nonetheless, he has returned to UT as a senior, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. All he lacks are statistics. He’s a victim of his position.
If Smith were as good at any other offensive position as he is on the line, he would be worthy of a Heisman Trophy campaign.
You can measure quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers in yards gained. Even defensive players can be measured by sacks, tackles, interceptions and passes defended. But an offensive lineman shows up only as a “participant” in the standard game summary that’s printed out and dispersed through a press box.
Bill Martin, UT’s first-year media-relations contact for football, can appreciate the challenge of promoting an offensive lineman. He summed it up with the same word, “stats.”
Martin pointed out that the challenge isn’t as great as it once was. You know that if you subscribe to Pro Football Focus. The website not only grades NFL players but also major-college players as well. Offensive linemen are included.
Pro Football Focus assigns grades to offensive linemen on both pass blocking and run blocking. It doesn’t just record dominant blocks. It can tell you how many times an offensive lineman allows his quarterback to be pressured.
But you don’t need PFF’s data to understand why Smith is projected as a first-round draft pick in 2021. You only need to watch him play. Even in a thicket of 300-pounders near the line of scrimmage, Smith doesn’t get lost in the crowd. He has been roughing up defenders since his first college game in 2017.
Tennessee shouldn’t expect anything less this season. And perhaps UT will provide more evidence of Smith’s success.
Coaches grade offensive linemen every game. Making those offensive linemen grades available to the media, who the could pass them along to fans, would be helpful. After all, while Smith is UT’s best player, an experienced offensive line is a team strength. So you might as well publicize it.
Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema promoted his offensive line as much as any coach in SEC history. Bielema, who coached the Razorbacks from 2013 through 2017, once had his starting offensive line on the cover of the football media guide.
No school publicized its offensive line more than Nebraska when its dynasty was in peak form. I remember thumbing through Nebraska media guides in the late 1990s before the Cornhuskers steamrolled the Vols in a couple of bowl games. Each offensive lineman’s number of “pancake (dominant) blocks” were included in his bio.
But there’s more to Smith than pancake blocks.
“One of the biggest things with Trey is what he does off the field,” Martin said. “Trey organized that (anti-racism) march on campus.
“If he plays well this season, we will do everything we can to promote him.”
Based on Smith’s track record, you can count on him fulfilling his half of the bargain.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.