Carter Smith was going to play major college football.
As an underclassman, the Madison Southern star imagined someday he would spend his Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference, lining up at linebacker for the University of Tennessee, or maybe in the Big Ten Conference, where he would rumble across the goal line as a fullback at Northwestern.
Smith wasn’t day-dreaming for the sake of doing it; the Volunteers and Wildcats took an interest in him, as did Purdue and Vanderbilt. By the time he was a sophomore he’d visited UT on four different occasions.
“I was looking at the big schools because they figured I would be like 6-foot-2,” Smith said in a phone interview with the Herald-Leader this week.
Then the worst non-injury circumstance that could have happened, happened.
“I stopped growing.”
Smith, now a senior, stalled out at about 6-foot flat.
“All the colleges, they want taller linebackers,” he said. “I’ve been told by a lot of colleges that I’ve got all the athleticism if I was just an inch or two taller. That really stinks.”
Madison Southern Coach Jonathan Clark said Smith is the most underrated player he’s ever coached.
“Tennessee told me two years ago, ‘Coach, if he was 6-3 he’d be one of our top guys,’” Clark said. “But he’s not, so you would think he would fall to the mid-major status. Miami of Ohio was all over him hot and heavy this winter and this spring, and then they just stopped. They probably went with somebody 6-2 and a half. He has lost out to everybody an inch or two taller. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“For me it’s been the most frustrating recruiting process I’ve dealt with for a young man because I’ve never had a kid that I’m so sure of his abilities and what he can do for your program, even from a captain and leadership standpoint, just get passed on so much. It’s been weird.”
Madison Southern burst onto the radar when Damien Harris — now a star at Alabama — was tearing up the field. Coach Jon Clark frequently met the question, “What’s going to happen to your program once he’s gone?”
“We just kept telling people, ‘I think you’re gonna be talking about Carter Smith here before too long,’” Clark said.
This year’s Eagles won the program’s third straight district title — after none, ever — and are 7-2 headed into a matchup at Class 4A contender Wayne County to close out the regular season. Smith has been crucial in every facet of the game: he’s rushed for 846 yards and 13 touchdowns, 142 receiving yards and two TD catches, has 134 tackles and two fumble recoveries, and punts and kicks off for the Eagles.
He never leaves the field, Clark said, but more important than that is the intensity with which he plays.
“Something we as coaches tell our players, even in practice, is ‘Guys, give a hundred percent today,’ but very few ever truly do,” Clark said. “He does not have a brake pedal. For him there’s no 75, 80 percent. He is 100 miles per hour all the time.”
Clark said he has to specifically instruct Smith to take it easy in practice to avoid having him injure others. Often during games the senior will run over to the sidelines and vomit because of how hard he’s pushing himself.
“One of the most frustrating things as a coach is when your best player is not your hardest worker,” Clark said. “Everybody wants their best player to be their hardest worker. What’s been amazing about him is our hardest worker on our football team has always been Carter Smith and he has been by far our best player.
“And he’s not a ‘look-at-me’ guy at all. Never says a word about himself. So, our kids, when you talk about leadership, he’s as humble of a leader I’ve ever seen and the kids absolutely love him.”
Tackler to surgeon
Smith is just as intense in the classroom as he is between the lines. He has a 33 ACT score and is a 4.0 student. Last Friday he was named Kentucky’s male winner for the Wendy’s High School Heisman award; next month he’ll find out whether he was selected as one of five national finalists for a $10,000 scholarship.
It became clear to Smith during his junior season that the major football schools were going to stay away, so he retooled his decision-making toward identifying his best academic fit.
He has scholarship offers from several high-academic Division III schools as well as Army and Air Force, which are FBS programs. Preferred walk-on spots at Louisville and Stanford are on the table as well. That last one is of particular interest to Smith, who hopes to one day become a brain surgeon.
“I like the challenge of trying to get into one of the most selective colleges in the country and the challenge of just going there,” he said of Stanford.
Orthopedics was an area of interest to Smith before he wrote a research paper about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its effects on former NFL players last school year. Evidence of the neurodegenerative brain disease was found in 110 of the 111 former NFL players’ brains studied as part of a study whose findings were released in July.
Smith wants to keep people safe, especially young people like him who can’t be talked into giving up the game.
“I thought it’d be really cool to study that because I’m a football player and I like the sport, so I don’t want everyone to get CTE from it,” Smith said. “ … It’s definitely a problem at all levels but I just love the sport too much to give it up.”
Smith is satisfied with the direction his football future is headed, but he still finds it frustrating that he’s not “good enough” to earn a big-time scholarship because of a couple inches on a scale.
Clark said when Stanford received Smith’s film, its staff couldn’t believe that he hadn’t committed somewhere yet. His intelligence has as much to do with his on-field performance as his 40-yard dash times in the 4.6 range; Smith can break down an offense’s tendencies as well as Madison Southern’s coaches, Clark said.
It seems that Smith has the whole package, just not in the right-sized box.
“They wanted him to be 6-3,” Clark said, “and he never hit that mark.”