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DeAndre Smelter finds success far from where he started

DeAndre Smelter is a big reason why the Yellow Jackets have such a potent passing game this season. AP Photo/Mike Stewart

In the past decade, four Georgia Tech receivers have at least three 100-yard games on their resumes. Calvin Johnson, Demayrius Thomas and Stephen Hill were each selected within the first 43 picks of the NFL draft. The fourth is a one-time pitching ace with a bum shoulder whose career on the gridiron began just 13 months ago.

The conclusion to DeAndre Smelter's college career is a million miles from where he started. He was supposed to be a star, of course, but it was that live arm and those wicked breaking balls that drew all the scouts.

"Coming out of high school, I was dead set on baseball being my ticket," Smelter said.

Five years later, Smelter isn't worried about his ticket to the pros. He's worried about Saturday's showdown with Miami, about the next eight games and what it means for his new team.

Georgia Tech's newest star receiver has already spent enough time trying to recapture the future he'd always dreamed about. Now, he wants to enjoy the moment.

"I'm just excited where my team is at, excited what the season holds," Smelter said. "I'm focused on that."

The Minnesota Twins selected Smelter in the 14th round of the Major League Baseball draft in 2010, but he opted to pitch at Georgia Tech instead. A year later, he was the Yellow Jackets' top reliever, allowing just one earned run in 17-1/3 innings. But a shoulder injury had nagged him from the moment he set foot on Tech's campus, and by 2012, it was clear he wasn't ready to pitch. He sat out the season rehabbing the injury, but each time he revved up the arm again, the pain returned and the velocity didn't. By the spring of 2013, Smelter knew it was over.

"He worked real hard trying to get back to where he was in baseball," his mother, Cora Smelter, said. "When he decided to make the transition to football, we talked about it, and I told him I just wanted him to be happy."

Paul Johnson had recruited Smelter as a defensive back out of high school, despite the fact that the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder hadn't played football his senior season at Tattnall Square. Three years later, Smelter wondered if the Georgia Tech football coach might still be interested.

Smelter's meeting with Johnson was concise. Sure, Johnson would give him a shot, but safety wasn't a realistic option. If Smelter wanted to see the field, his best bet was receiver, and even then, he'd have to earn his roster spot. It was no easy task for a broken-down pitcher who hadn't played a down of football in four years.

"I started off being No. 112 [on the roster]," Smelter said. "I had to earn everything I got."

The work had never been the issue. Smelter always put in the hours., and after so many years spent trying to breathe life back into his fastball, he was eager to attack a new challenge.

He spent his first summer working with his fellow receivers and devouring the playbook, and by the time fall camp opened, he'd made real progress.

"I didn't know what he could do initially, but he had some ability," said Tech receivers coach Al Preston. "He never talked about what he wanted to do, he just came to work."

It earned Smelter a job in a thin receiving corps, and that was a start. He wrapped up his junior season -- his first as a football player -- with 21 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns. Still, it was clear Smelter had much to learn.

The offseason began with Smelter spending day after day on the practice field. He ran routes by himself. He spent hours with the JUGS machine, catching one ball after another. He had a few months of practice to make up for four years away from the game.

"He legitimately works hard and he tells himself he's not going to quit until he perfects his craft," Tech B-back Zach Laskey said. "You can't say enough good things about the guy."

New Tech starting quarterback Justin Thomas would call his receivers to the practice field a few days a week early in the summer. After a few weeks, though, Thomas' phone would ring first. It would be Smelter hoping to get in a few more reps.

They'd trudge out to the field and run routes and talk shop, working through the scenarios they couldn't simulate in practice but were bound to see on game days. By the time fall camp opened in August, Smelter had turned a corner.

"When he first got out there, we had to pretty much tell him what to do on each play," Thomas said. "Now he knows what he's doing, he's playing with confidence and he's comfortable. From last year, it's night and day."

All that time working during the summer also helped Thomas and Smelter build a rapport that has quickly translated to game days this fall.

Georgia Tech is 4-0 and in control in the Coastal Division. The passing game has been a big part of the Jackets' success, and no one has been a bigger part of the passing game than Smelter. He's been on the receiving end of 43 percent of Tech's passing attempts -- second-most in the nation behind Alabama's Amari Cooper, a Heisman contender -- and he's averaging nearly 25 yards-per-catch. He's topped the 100-yard mark three times in four games.

"He can match up with anyone in the league right now and win, so I have a lot of confidence to go his way," Thomas said.

It's a nice start, Smelter admits, but it's not the end of the journey. There's a reservoir of untapped potential there, plenty more work to be done.

Smelter is always thinking of ways to get better, but after three years waiting for a dream that never materialized, he wants to soak in the moment, too.

"I didn't have some of my best years my first couple years," he said. "But these past couple have been some of the best years of my life. It's a lesson learned. I went through some hard times, but now that everything is panning out. Keeping my head down and still working and finding something I like to do, I think it's a good thing."

Smelter said the best part of his success in football comes after the games, finding his mom and dad waiting for him with smiles on their faces. They'd seen him struggle for so long, and now there's finally some relief.

But Cora Smelter isn't smiling because her son is suddenly a star. She knew that would happen no matter what DeAndre did with his life. She's just happy to see him doing something he loves again.

"DeAndre tries not to let anything get in his way," Cora Smelter said. "We all have frustrations, and I'm quite sure he had some in baseball. But he doesn't let much get him down. He picks himself and goes forward to what he needs to do."