His name fits his play on the football field, as his shake-and-bake moves have made him one of the best punt returners in the country.
Utah receiver Shaky Smithson picked up the nickname when he was six because he was smaller and faster than everyone else, and people used to cry out, “Look at that shaky little thing” in playground games. He patterned his moves after Deion Sanders and desperately desired to have the ball in his hands when it mattered most.
Always confident in his abilities, Smithson arrived at Utah from East Los Angeles Community College last season eager to make an impact. But he struggled through injuries and played running back to provide depth. Shoulder surgery prevented him from practicing during the spring, but Smithson just knew his senior year would be the one where he would break out.
Sure enough, he has truly blossomed this year as No. 9 Utah (6-0) prepares to host Colorado State on Saturday. Smithson leads the nation with 555 punt return yards -- already good enough for the single-season school record, passing the mark of 495 yards Steve Smith set in 1999.
He is the only player in the nation with three 70-plus yard punt returns this season, and has been honored three times as the Mountain West Conference Special Teams player of the week.
“I always looked at myself as an impact player,” Smithson said in a phone interview. “I always thought I could make plays it was just getting the balls in my hands.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham seemingly singles him out every week for either a punt return for a touchdown, or giving the offense great field position. There is no question he has been one of the most valuable players of the team.
Yet for someone who relies on his elusiveness on the field, Smithson is as solid as they come. The consummate team player and mature beyond his years, Smithson has the added responsibility of caring for his 16-year-old brother, Anthony, a rising high school prospect.
The two live in an apartment in Salt Lake City, and Smithson has taken on the role of father, getting Anthony to school, checking his homework, cooking dinner and attending PTA meetings. Smithson simply wanted to provide his brother a better life than the one they had back home in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore.
He got the approval of his mother. Smithson also needed to apply for a waiver from the NCAA to get extra benefits to help make ends meet. The NCAA granted that request, becoming the fourth family to receive the waiver. Smithson was nominated for the Orange Bowl Courage Award last season for his efforts to care for his brother.
“The main thing I have is I’m determined that we’re going to make it no matter what,” Smithson said. “I’m just so determined no matter the odds we’re going to make it. I wanted him to have an opportunity a lot of other kids don’t have.”
Smithson has four younger sisters and a younger brother as well, but he felt he could do the most to help Anthony go in the right direction. Anthony has become his good luck charm -- he missed the season opener against Pittsburgh and Smithson had two fumbles in his worst game of the season. Anthony also delivers the pre-game advice. Every week before games, Anthony sends a text message that says, “Take it one play at a time. It’s going to come to you, slow the game down.”
Smithson has not fumbled since the opener against Pittsburgh. Special teams coach Jay Hill remembers being hard on Smithson after the game. He called him a few days later to explain why he was being so tough on him.
“I said, ‘I apologize for being so hard on you during the game. It’s what we expect of you,’” Hill recalled. “He told me, ‘Coach it won’t happen again. Put me right back there and I promise you, I’ll get it done.”
Sure enough the following week against UNLV, Smithson had 205 yards of total offense, including a 55-yard touchdown catch and 77-yard punt return for a score. He returned another punt 73 yards for a touchdown against New Mexico in Week 3.
“He’s got that knack for making people miss,” Whittingham said. “He’s a guy who’s fearless back there, and he’s smart enough with his decision making. Those are the elements that go into making a good punt returner.”
Smithson graduates in May with a degree in sociology. If the NFL comes calling, his brother is going with him.
But first, there is half a season left to be played, plenty of time for moves yet to be made.