One doesn’t have a hard time finding people to say nice things about Sawyer Smith in Cantonment, Fla., his hometown.
There’s one man who does, however, harbor something of a grudge against the University of Kentucky’s newly minted starting quarterback: Greg Blackmon, currently a dean of students at J.M. Tate High School, where he was the head baseball coach for 14 seasons before retiring in June 2017.
“That joker, he was my center fielder,” Blackmon said with a laugh. “And he left me his senior year to go play dern football, and we went to the regional final. If we got Sawyer, we win the whole state championship. The sucker, I tell him every day.”
Smith — a former Alabama baseball commit — did forego his final year of high school baseball to enroll early at Troy, where he spent the last three years before transferring to UK this summer. He was a heck of a baseball player but, while he likes to give him a hard time about it, Blackmon’s sure giving up his glove wasn’t easy.
And there’s no doubt he’ll be pulling for the Wildcats against Florida come Saturday.
“This is exciting stuff,” Blackmon said. “I hate that the ’ol boy (Terry Wilson) got hurt, like everybody, but I’m happy for Sawyer. That’s terrible, but it happens all the time.”
Cantonment, a suburb of Pensacola with a population similar to that of Georgetown, is about as far west in the Florida panhandle as you can travel before hitting the Florida-Alabama border. It’s closer to Auburn, Tallahassee and Tuscaloosa than Gainesville, so while the area doesn’t lack Gators fans, UF doesn’t have exclusive rights on the population’s allegiances.
Blackmon is an Alabama fan. Caroline Gray, an economics teacher at Tate, graduated from Florida State and wouldn’t dare think of rooting for Florida anyway. Having Smith quarterbacking the Cats makes her schadenfreude all the more pleasing.
“It’s pretty easy to cheer for anybody going up against ’em, but now even moreso,” Gray said with a laugh.
When he transferred from Troy there was an assumption among many in Cantonment that he might never be on their television screens again.
“When he made the move from Troy, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, he’ll never get to play now,’” Gray said with a laugh. “But you couldn’t blame him for wanting to go SEC. I know I thought that, ‘Well he was fighting for a spot at Troy and then now he’s going to a tougher battle.’”
Gray, too, acknowledged that the circumstances were unfortunate, but believes Smith will step in admirably for Wilson. Even away from the playing field in high school, Smith was a natural leader, she said. When school faculty needed a person to rally troops inside the halls, he was the guy they leaned on.
Ronnie Douglas, the head football coach at Tate for two years before resigning to have a bigger hand in his car wash and grocery businesses, led the school to consecutive playoff appearances in 2013 and 2014, the first time that had been done since the late 1970s. When he and Jay Lindsey, now the head coach, took over the program, they identified Smith as a clear starter despite being a sophomore.
Because he played summer baseball, Smith missed football practices until late in the summer. Entering their second season together, Douglas and Lindsey taught Smith a new offense they installed while he was away during the bus ride to a scrimmage.
“And of course he did fine,” Douglas said. “That was sort of our deal with Sawyer, we’d get him when we could. ... We turned that program around, and a big part of it was Sawyer.”
Douglas believes that had Smith focused 100 percent on football earlier in his development, Troy never would have gotten a sniff.
“Kentucky would have already offered him,” Douglas said.
Douglas — a fan of coaches more than schools (Alabama’s Nick Saban was named) — still assists the football program at Tate. The Aggies have a game in Tallahassee on Friday but he’s planning to fly out of Pensacola to Lexington on Saturday to watch Smith in person.
“Sawyer’s like my son,” Douglas said. “His daddy’s Billy, but I sort of adopted Sawyer. He’s my guy.”
Lindsey won’t get to make the trip but he’s hosting a get-together at his house Saturday night. His is one of many families in Cantonment that have filed their applications to join Big Blue Nation this season.
He’s fielded phone calls all week from Kentucky media and can’t get enough of talking about UK’s new QB-1.
“Some people play football because they’re good at it, or their parents make ’em,” Lindsey said. “Sawyer played it with me because he loved it. And just from a teammate side? Those guys will play for him Saturday just like they played for him on Fridays.”
Smith isn’t the only Floridian on UK’s roster. The following 18 Wildcats also all hail from the Sunshine State: Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald; B.J. Alexander; Josh Ali; Jamari Brown; Cedric Dort. Jr.; Stanley Garner; DeMarcus Harris; Davoan Hawkins; Akeem Hayes; Kenneth Horsey; Nick Lewis; Chance Martin; Nik Ognenovic; Bryce Oliver; Jake Pope; Nik Scalzo; Clevan Thomas; and Jordan Wright.
Tate’s most famous alumnus is undoubtedly Don Sutton, the former Major League Baseball star whose career spanned parts of three decades. Sutton was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 after pitching for a total of 23 seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics and California Angels.