Smith caught a mind-boggling 161 passes for more than 3,000 yards in 2011 and 2012, his last two years at Christian Academy of Knoxville, but he never mentioned that following Tuesday's spring practice at Haslam Field. Instead, he spoke at length about the four passes he dropped in 2013 as a Vol rookie.
When asked if he expected to play as much as he did as a true freshman, Smith gave a quick "Not at all," then immediately launched into a monologue on his season-long struggles to finish plays last fall.
Pausing only long enough to catch his breath, the 6-foot-1, 197-pounder added: "If I could take it back, as a person, I wouldn't because it probably made me a better person and a better player at the same time."
Smith's freshman season began with great promise. After catching one pass for 9 yards in the opener against Austin Peay and three for 36 yards in Game 2 versus Western Kentucky, he made his first college start in Game 3 at Oregon. He celebrated by reeling in a season-long 51-yard reception to set up a touchdown on the Vols' opening possession.
After an inconsequential drop in Game 4 at Florida, he caught his first touchdown pass — a 29-yarder in Game 5 against South Alabama. Smith started for the fourth time in a row in Game 6 against Georgia and recorded a 26-yard grab on a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown drive. He missed Game 7 against South Carolina with knee and hamstring problems, however, and was never the same thereafter.
Smith caught a pass but also dropped one in Game 8 at Alabama. He made another catch but dropped a potential 34-yard touchdown throw in Game 9 at Missouri that would've trimmed the gap to 17-7 just before halftime. His confidence clearly shaken, Smith did not record a reception in the final three games. Worse, he dropped a potential 35-yard gainer in the Game 11 loss to Vanderbilt.
Basically, Smith was at a loss to fix the problem. He'd never encountered an attack of the drops before.
"Honestly, in high school I never really had that problem with dropped balls," he said. "Coming into college it was no different, except the talent got better, so there's no excuses for me to drop the ball."
When he said "no excuses," he meant it. Although most of the drops occurred immediately after the knee/hamstring problems peaked, he refuses to cite a cause-and-effect relationship.
"It was tough but that's no excuse for dropped balls," he said. "I tore a meniscus in the state championship game in high school (eight months before his first game at Tennessee) and never got it worked on. It kind of bothered me throughout the offseason but during the season it felt OK. There's no excuses for dropped balls, and I don't want that to be an excuse because my hands are not my knees."
Fully recovered following offseason surgery, he says his knee feels good this spring.
"After the surgery I took a lot of time off, and I think that was big," he said. "Coming back for spring practice and it feeling good … that's a positive."
"That's why it was hard … because I am a perfectionist," he said. "I love just producing. Dropping balls is the hardest thing on me. But I can't let that get to me. I've got to stay strong for my teammates because they need me. And I can't do that to the coaches."
Although Smith got open on a regular basis last fall, that provides precious little consolation.
"Getting open was a positive," he said. "But you can get open all you want; you've (still) got to catch the ball and produce for the team."
Although he finished his rookie season with decent numbers — 12 catches for 182 yards, a touchdown and a 15.2 per-catch average — he could've posted 16 catches for around 270 yards if he had reeled in those four balls that hit him in the hands. Recognizing this was painful, but a strong support system helped him navigate his way through the darkness.
"I've got family and I've got good teammates and good coaches that believe in me," he said. "And I believe in myself."
Although Tennessee's coaches believe in Smith, they still rounded up a group of high-profile pass catchers for their 2014 signing class. As a result, the wideout competition this spring is light years ahead of last spring.
"That's probably the big thing … the competition now," Smith said. "There's a lot more players at this position, so you've really got to step up. You cannot have any drops right now."
Like a defensive back who has been burned for several long touchdown passes, Josh Smith needs to forget the past and focus on the future. He can't go back and catch the balls thrown to him in 2013 but he can make sure he catches the balls thrown to him in 2014.
"I don't know what was going through my mind," he said, "but next year I'm going to step up. My goal is no drops at all.
"Hopefully, that will happen."
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