Until Saturday, wide receiver Devon "Moo Moo" Smith had made more headlines for accidentally running into Joe Paterno in a preseason practice than for his play on the field. Smith, Penn State's smallest yet fastest player, had thus far in his collegiate career been labeled as, more or less, a failed experiment.
But on Saturday night at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., with Penn State missing its top receiver in senior Derek Moye, Smith delivered the best game of his career.
The 5-foot-7, 157-pound speedster ran past Northwestern’s secondary and reeled in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Matt McGloin. The junior also caught two other passes that went for more than 20 yards and finished with a career-high six receptions and 110 yards.
He’s third on Penn State with 16 receptions and 297 yards this season and second on the team with two touchdowns entering Saturday’s game against Illinois. He hopes to continue his success, and his team will need him to, as it's likely that Moye will miss at least one more game.
“It can only make me better,” Smith said after Saturday's game of his performance against the Wildcats. “It can boost my confidence.”
Smith gets flack from his teammates for his size, “but at the end of the day, they know I got a lot of heart,” he said. Right tackle Chima Okoli joked on Tuesday with a room full of reporters that Smith is 5-foot-2 and 74 pounds.
“When he first got recruited here, I was scared for him because as small as he looks on TV, he weighs even less,” Okoli said. “The kid has heart. If I'm his size, I'm trying to run around people. He's not scared to run through people.”
Smith, who had 31 receptions and 393 yards in his first two seasons, caught just 10 passes for 187 yards in the first seven games of this season. He didn’t record a reception until Penn State’s win at Temple, the third game of the year.
After he was shut out in the Nittany Lions’ Sept. 10 loss to the Crimson Tide – their lone defeat of the season – Smith said he wondered ‘was I really good at football?’. But Smith said the coaches reinforced their belief in him and two weeks later, Smith caught a short pass from Rob Bolden and ran the majority of 71 yards to pay dirt.
“He's had his struggles,” Paterno said Tuesday. “He's not a natural. He's had to work hard with his hands, timing, body control, so that he can put himself in position to make the catch. To his credit, he's done that. And I think he's in a position to do pretty good.”
There have been critics, mostly of his size, and Smith has heard them. Just this week, someone told him they read a blog that felt Penn State needed to give up on Smith. It’s nothing new. It’s been going on since he was young when many said he was too small to play football.
“It was a big deal in my county,” said Smith, a native of White Plains, Md. “Everyone said ‘Devon, just run track. You’re one of the fastest people in the country right now so you should just run track.’ But I played football since I was six-years-old and that was my first love so I just wanted to kind of prove people wrong that I could play football at a big time college program.”
In addition to playing football at Westlake High School, Smith was a state champion in the 100 and 200 meters.
Smith, who ran a 4.23-second 40-yard dash his freshman year at Penn State, has been trying to budget his time between academics and football and if he keeps his grades up, the are going to let him run for the university’s indoor track team after football season.
But as far as Saturday being his breakout performance on the gridiron, Paterno needs a larger sample size.
“He's got to have more than one game for me to go around saying he's this or that. But, he can run,” said Paterno, who experienced that first hand when Smith accidentally blindsided him finishing a route in an Aug. 6 practice.
“He's a tough kid,” the 84-year-old coach continued. “And he'll try to block you. I know how tough he can block.”