Tennessee football coach Butch Jones knew he got a special player when he signed five-star offensive lineman Trey Smith of University School of Jackson.
Jones says he got a special person in Smith, too.
The 6-foot-6, 313-pound freshman enrolled in January and has been one of the most watched players during Tennessee’s spring football practices, which conclude with Saturday’s 4 p.m. DISH Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium.
“I guess the first thing you can say about him is maturity,” Jones says. “He’s mature beyond his years, a great person of character, competes every day. He’s come into our football family, and he’s just worked, and he continues to earn the respect of his peers and his teammates and everyone around him with the way he carries himself on a daily basis.”
Smith, who will contend for a starting job this fall, is physically imposing. But his clear, articulate manner of speech suggests a maturity beyond his years.
“It’s really a sensitive subject,” Smith explains. “When I was 15, my mom (Dorsetta) died, so I got a really good text from one of my personal heroes. He taught me that, in that time, it was tough, but man, it’s time to man up.
“Essentially, it was just time for me to grow up in a way. Just losing that person, knowing that the way I behave, the way I carry myself on and off the field, that’s going to determine what type of many I am. That’s going to make her proud.”
Smith also showed a lighter side with media members at Haslam Field when a reporter asked if he gets recognized on campus.
“Every once in a while,” Smith says. “A lot of times people are scared. Just a friendly public service announcement: I will not eat you. I will not harm you. I just want to say hi.”
Smith says the transition from high school to college schoolwork has been smooth and praised his high school alma mater for prepping him.
“I think the biggest transition, honestly, is just walking to class,” Smith continues. “Instead of walking down the hall, a few hundred feet, I’ve got to walk across campus and go up the massive hill to Ayres Hall. That’s a big transition for me.”
Smith has spent much of the spring transitioning from left tackle to right tackle, and has worked some at guard. It’s been a challenge.
“It’s obviously going to be tough,” he explains. “I’ve never played right tackle that much. (But) just getting adjusted to the speed of the game, just going against those really fast defensive ends, it’s hard, man.”
Smith said he’s gained seven pounds since arriving on campus, and the speed and tempo has been the biggest surprise during spring practices.
His weight fluctuates between 312 to 315 pounds.
“Being this big, and I haven’t weighed this much, and just having to play to the level of great, elite-level defensive linemen in the SEC, it’s way different,” Smith adds.
Smith, UT’s only five-star of the 2017 class, was rated the No. 1 prospect in the state by 247Sports, the No. 14 prospect in the nation and the No. 4 offensive tackle.
ESPN rated Smith the No. 1 overall prospect in the nation in the 2017 class.
The two-time Mr. Football Award winner chose Tennessee over Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama, among others.
Tennessee hasn’t had an All-America offensive lineman since Arron Sears in 2006. Smith could break that streak in the next couple of years.
Jones notes he’s been impressed with both the mental and physical work by Smith this spring.
“First of all, mentally, the ability to pick up and retain information, the competitiveness, the drive to be great in everything you do, and not just on the football field but in the classroom and the game of life, as well,” Jones points out.
“(He) loves the weight room and will just do anything possible to be great.”
Smith’s transition to college life has been eased by having his sister, Ashley, on campus.
Ashley was hired as executive assistant to Butch Jones in July, a move that raised eyebrows in recruiting circles.
At the time, Tennessee spokesman Ryan Robinson said Ashley Smith, a UT graduate, went through the university’s normal hiring process and was one of three finalists before being hired.
Regardless, Smith is glad to have big sis nearby.
“Ashley’s pretty funny,” he says. “If I don’t see her in the office, she’ll probably give me a call late at night, or I might go upstairs and talk to her. We just talk a little bit. I think it made the transition five hours away [from home] a little easier because I’m home (at UT) and my sister is here.”
Smith took off from a Saturday scrimmage earlier in the spring to attend University School of Jackson’s prom.
It reminded Smith of what he’s missing by enrolling early at Tennessee.
“I wouldn’t say any homesickness,” Smith adds. “Just talking to my dad (Henry), I miss him a lot, but of course I can get on the cell phone and call him. I think a lot of it is missing Jackson, just being around my friends and seeing them do crazy stuff on Snapchat, makes me miss it a little bit.
“But I love it down here. I couldn’t ask for anything more, honestly.”
Smith isn’t just focused on football at Tennessee. He started making education a priority when his mother died.
“My mom always wanted me to get my degree and be a successful, young African-American man,” Smith says. “So it was time (to mature).
“I had to take the transition steps. That’s why I wanted to early enroll. It was just time for me to make my path in order to make her proud.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.