What’s your college football goal?
It’s the question Michael Smith asks players when he first meets them, whether on the recruiting trail, or these days in the Kentucky wide receivers room.
“Most people say, ‘Well shoot, I want to play in the NFL, Coach,’” the Cats’ assistant relayed Monday in his first meeting with the media along with fellow newcomer outside linebackers coach Brad White.
Some players say, “Coach, I want to be like you when I grow up,” Smith continued.
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The former walk-on, turned standout wide receiver for Kansas State, does what he can to help those players achieve their goals.
Smith also encourages them to dream bigger.
“You don’t want to be like me; you want to be better than me because if you’re better than me, you had a pretty good life because I’ve been blessed,” he tells players.
Smith has played professionally; he’s earned All-America honors after amassing 2,457 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns for the Wildcats of Manhattan, Kan.
The New Orleans native did all of those things during his playing career despite starting out as a walk-on.
Approachable and humble while still showing flashes of that wide receiver confidence, Smith isn’t afraid to share his story with his current and future players.
“I’ve even gone on and shown them highlight tapes of myself,” he smiled, half asking the media not to share that story.
He says to players: “Well, here it is, brother, I was pretty good. So you’ve got some big shoes to fill if you want to be like me.”
Smith, who most recently coached five seasons at Arkansas under Bret Bielema, tries to provide a blueprint for his wide receivers.
“I tell them I’ve been fortunate to have that experience to play at that level and to be around guys that are at that level,” Smith said. “If that’s what you want to do, there’s a certain way you have to do it, the steps you have to take to be that type of player.
“I tell the guys, I want you to be the best you (that) you can be. I don’t need Superman.”
The former Kansas State and Arkansas assistant coach is starting with a mostly blank slate of a receiving corps at Kentucky, which will include incoming freshmen Marvin Alexander, Allen Dailey, Akeem Hayes and Bryce Oliver along with a handful of sophomores like Josh Ali, Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas.
The only real veterans in the room are fifth-year senior Dorian Baker, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, and junior Tavin Richardson, whom coaches called the Cats’ most consistent wide receiver last season.
The returning wide-outs that played last season combined for just 665 yards and one touchdown on 52 catches.
With just 10 wide receivers on scholarship, don’t be surprised to see the Cats add a few walk-ons like Smith once was. Ultimately, he’d like to be three deep at each wide receiver position.
A young, inexperienced group doesn’t scare Smith.
“I look forward to it. I’ve had a bunch of young receivers in my career, and to watch those guys continue to grow,” he said trailing off.
It’s a situation with which he’s familiar. When Smith took over that position group at Arkansas in 2013, it was a relatively young, inexperienced group that had lost four players to the NFL Draft over the two previous seasons.
Just a couple of years later, the Hogs’ offense was racking up 3,400-plus yards through the air in both 2015 and 2016, with a couple of wide receivers among the top 15 in the Southeastern Conference in yardage.
It took time. It took patience, but Smith likes the payoff.
“You’ve got to understand they’re 17- and 18-year-old young men who are trying to find their way, not only on the football field, but in life itself,” he said.
There’s one thing Smith said he knows for certain.
“I don’t want anyone to ever look at our position group as a weak link,” he said. “My deal is to challenge those guys to give me everything they have, both on and off the field to become the best football players and people they become.”
That’s his college football goal for them.