COLUMBUS, Ohio — Corey Smith isn’t the type of person to do things the way others do. Because of that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the end of his career didn’t happen in the conventional way, as most others would’ve, stretched out on the turf with a broken leg under a reddish-gray sky in Bloomington, Ind., last October.
Still, five years after enrolling at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College after a promising but unusual high school career, Smith’s tumultuous road to Ohio State had hit its breaking point. Literally and figuratively.
As a high school junior in 2008, Smith caught 52 passes for more than 1,100 yard and 16 scores. The Ohio 4-star prospect caught more than just passes. He also caught the eye of a young wide receivers coach at Marshall University.
“I saw Corey when he was a junior in the state championship game at Buchtel, when I was at Marshall,” Zach Smith, now Ohio State’s fifth-year wide receivers coach, told Landof10.com on Monday. “I loved him as a player then. He was a highly recruited kid, but I wasn’t recruiting him because I didn’t have a shot.”
Soon after the state championship run at Buchtel, it was revealed that Smith’s high school eligibility had been incorrectly calculated. He had already committed to Tennessee and had planned to enroll there, but the new information meant he’d need to make a stop at junior college to satisfy NCAA academic requirements.
While it wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t a new path, because plenty of big-time players have made JUCO stops. Tennessee’s coaching staff had arranged for Smith to head south to Scooba, Miss., to attend East Mississippi Community College, where they hoped he’d spend one season before heading to Knoxville.
Smith, however, chose Grand Rapids Community College, where friends of his from Akron were heading. After just a few months in western Michigan, the once-proud Raiders football program was suddenly, and surprisingly, shut down. Smith left Grand Rapids and was left with no school to attend. His grades were in worse shape than they had been before, but once more, his career wasn’t over.
East Mississippi, the program he shunned months earlier, turned out to be the right place after all. Smith headed to EMCC — the now wildly famous JUCO thanks to the Netflix docudrama “Last Chance U,” — and began turning things around. Buddy Stephens, the head coach for the Lions, was there for Smith. So too was that former Marshall University wide receivers coach.
“I kept up with him because he went to a JUCO and you never know what’s going to happen to someone that goes to a JUCO, and I didn’t know where I was going to be,” Smith said. “I watched his film every year. He went to GRCC and that was a mess and he ended up in Mississippi and it took me a while to track him down and find him, but when I did, I just stayed in touch with him.”
After lighting up scoreboards in 2012, Corey Smith’s last chance turned into another chance, one that Zach Smith told him would come.
“He was committed to Mississippi State and he was being recruited by Tennessee and all these schools, and I just stayed with him,” Zach Smith said. “I kept telling him ‘I’m going to bring you home, at some point it’s going to line up, and when you get that shot, you better take it.’ ”
Ohio State had not accepted a JUCO football player in years – not since linebacker Larry Grant in 2006 – but the Buckeyes assistant coach saw something in the Akron star and, in the worst-case scenario, would only be “wasting” two years on the player if he didn’t pan out.
“I wanted to take him for a number of reasons. I knew he was a good kid and had a good heart but I knew it was going to be a work in progress and a major project,” Zach Smith said. “I just figured it made more sense to take a more talented kid that was a little older than to take a less-talented high school kid. I thought I could help him, mold him and get him on the right track. And if I couldn’t, it’d only be two years, even though it’s turned into four or 12 however many he’s been here.”
For the wide receiver, it was another chance at another fresh start and a major transition from Akron to Grand Rapids to Scooba to Columbus. Smith had seen it all.
“It doesn’t even really compare,” Corey Smith said on Monday when asked about his JUCO experiences. “When I was in Mississippi, there was nothing there, I guess there’s a population of like 730 people or something like that? There’s probably a gas station and a little, I don’t even know what to call it, up the street. It was just straight football and school. Here, I’m close to my family and my teammates, close to my coaches. There’s plenty more to do here even though I’m still focused.”
He is focused, mostly on getting himself healthy enough to take advantage of his next last chance. To do that, Smith had to do something no one in his family had ever done, graduate from college. That was a condition of him being able to return to Ohio State for his sixth year of college football.
“I had to graduate,” he said when asked what the parameters of his medical waiver request. “I was in a tough spot in the spring with a class, but I ended up finishing.”
That is where Corey Smith is now, as a person. He’s an adult in a room full of talented but inexperienced peers. We’re not talking about just on-the-field experience, though. Corey Smith has been through some dark times, and he’s seen some things. He’s using those times to help enlighten his teammates, to show them that the right mindset can get you where you need to go, even if that’s not someplace you ever imagined you’d be. That’s something he learned at that junior college in Mississippi.
“It kind of gave me the drive and motivation to really see that you can do anything if you just work hard and put your mind to something,” Smith said of his time in Mississippi. “I had to clear my mind, my heart and my soul, and I’d be good, and that’s what I did.”
His position coach agrees, and he knows he’s seeing something special. It’s a maturation process that the wide receivers coach says he had to put himself on the line for over the years.
“There was a point I had to risk my life, my job, everything on the line to tell people I was going to get this kid right,” Zach Smith said. “He’s a different kid, a different person, lives a different lifestyle. He’s not the most vocal leader, but in our sanctuary, or meeting room, we’ve had some hard stories and conversations where he’s opened up a lot about everything he’s been through. He’s talked about why he’s made changes, why he’s stopped doing the things he used to do, or why he is the way he is now. He has, by example, given a ton of insight into why and how someone can change.”
Football is still a part of the lifestyle, though, and the dream — with a Twitter account that still reads “Dreamchaser” — is still to make it on the field. That’s what he’s gone through all this for. There? Nothing is changing there. Smith has one goal, to get back to healthy and to take one last final swing at it.
His leg is healthy, he’s in a position to be a starter for the Buckeyes and there are no excuses if things don’t work out. Don’t expect Smith to be satisified with just playing.
He wants to make it count.
“My expectations for myself (this year), is really just to contribute as much as I can,” he said. “To make every opportunity (count) and every play I can and just give it everything I’ve got. I feel like I can be better; all the time I figure out something new. I liked being coached, and I feel like I can be better, way better, than I am.”
Make no mistake, Smith is already better than he was. This is a different person and regardless of what happens with the 6-foot-1, 190-pound sixth-year senior on the field this fall, he’s already taken full advantage of his last, last chance.
“He’s turned everything around,” Zach Smith said. “The way he acts, talks, his routines, everything is different. He’s graduated, he’s a great person, he’s engaged to a great girl, he’s a great dad who takes care of his kids. He’s turned his life around. I think he knows that this may be his last chance in football, but he’s already made good on his last chance to make it in life.”