With the 2020 NFL Draft only one month in the rearview mirror, scouts and draftniks have already started the process of sifting through hours of film and begun their scouting reports and rankings for 2021 draft-eligible prospects.
After Cleburne’s Reggie Robinson II was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys last month, is it possible Johnson County products could be selected in back-to-back drafts?
There’s certainly a good chance, in this sports editor’s eyes. A couple of Johnson County’s finest — Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith, of Grandview, and Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Kody Russey, of Burleson — will be playing their final years of college eligibility in 2020 and should be on pro scouts’ radars for the 2021 NFL Draft.
A column on Russey will be coming later, but for now let’s focus on Smith.
In early looks ahead at the 2021 quarterback prospect pool from draft experts, Smith hasn’t been featured or even mentioned. Not to worry; we can use Robinson as a prime example of why that doesn’t necessarily matter at this point. Also a product of Tulsa University, Robinson was rarely mentioned as a top-20 cornerback draft prospect even after his standout all-conference senior season with the Golden Hurricane, let alone this time last year.
Robinson didn’t start getting much attention from draft experts until after solid showings at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. Robinson’s stock soared over the final couple weeks leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft. Robinson went from being rarely mentioned on draft websites such as www.walterfootball.com a few weeks before the draft, to being a fourth-round pick by the Cowboys.
And I believe there’s a chance the same could happen for Smith, who has yet to catch the eyes of draft experts, for some reason. However, while draftniks may not have noticed Smith just yet, I know at least a couple of NFL scouts are aware of Smith, and for good reason.
Right at 6-foot-4 and a stout 227 pounds, Smith possesses the ideal body type NFL teams seek in pro-style quarterbacks.
Smith has also possessed an NFL-caliber arm for several years now, with the ability to zip laser throws into tight windows and also launch deep passes with ease.
Perhaps one of Smith’s most underrated traits is his toughness; he’s consistently shown the ability to take a beating but keep on slinging it in the face of pressure. He’s played through a couple of tough injuries in his collegiate career, but hasn’t skipped a beat.
Experience? Smith has that, as well, thanks to a tumultuous set of circumstances to open his college career. Not only was he a three-year starter in high school, but he also started multiple games as a true freshman and true sophomore as well as starting every game for Tulsa in 2019.
Smith put together one of the most productive careers for a quarterback in Texas high school football history, and that’s saying something considering the QB talent in this great state. Smith ranked in the top 10 in passing yards and passing touchdowns at the time of his graduation, earning numerous accolades such as All-American and all-state honors along with All-Johnson County MVP.
Following his productive high school career, Smith’s college path got off to a bit of a bumpy road, but not from his doing. No matter the hurdles presented, Smith has been able to clear them in stride leading up to his senior season at Tulsa.
Smith started his college career at Baylor University, where he was expected to red-shirt as a freshman and sit behind senior starter Seth Russell and the highly touted Jarrett Stidham for a couple of years. But during Smith’s first semester on campus in spring 2016, the Baylor football program was sent into a state of disarray as the Art Briles saga unfolded. (So add “ability to overcome adverse situations” to Smith’s list of strengths.)
After Briles was fired, Stidham — now the presumed starting QB for the New England Patriots — transferred out of Baylor, which left Smith as the backup behind Russell. In Baylor’s ninth game of the 2016 season, Russell went down with a season-ending injury at Oklahoma, forcing Smith into a starting role as a true freshman less than a year removed from playing Class 3A high school football.
All things considered, the former Zebra All-American was outstanding for the Bears over their final four games in 2016.
In a 54-35 loss to Texas Tech in Smith’s second career start, he admirably held his own against Patrick Mahomes — now an NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP. Smith completed 30-of-46 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns, but Baylor’s defense was no match for Mahomes, who also completed 30-of-46 passes, but for 586 yards and six touchdowns.
A few weeks later, Smith shined in a nationally televised 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns in just his fourth career start. Smith ended his unexpected freshman season with 1,526 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a quarterback efficiency rating of 139.33.
What Smith showed as a true freshman — succeeding after being unexpectedly forced into a starting role on what was a bad team still reeling from the Briles fallout — was nothing short of amazing. In fact, I was ready to begin the “Zach Smith for Heisman 2018” campaign if his sophomore season in 2017 went the way many expected after what he showed as a freshman in 2016.
But Baylor hired Matt Rhule as head coach for the 2017 season. And, despite Smith’s impressive moxie as a freshman, Rhule brought Anu Solomon, a graduate transfer from Arizona, in to compete for the starting QB job with Smith and true freshman Charlie Brewer. Four days before Baylor’s 2017 season opener, Rhule announced Solomon as the starter.
Following an 0-2 start with embarrassing losses to Liberty University and UTSA, Rhule named Smith as Baylor’s starter for its week 3 game at Duke.
A week later, Smith had arguably his most impressive performance to date in week 4 of the 2017 season. Smith out-dueled Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield — the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick — in a hard-fought 49-41 loss to the No. 3-ranked Sooners. Smith completed 33-of-50 passes for 463 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The 463 yards were the fourth-most in Baylor history at the time, and they were also the most passing yards allowed that season by the College Football Playoff-bound Sooners. Smith suffered an injury two games later, which opened the door for Brewer, who Rhule later named as the starter for the rest of the season.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Smith announced his plans to transfer after the 2017 season. After having several programs reach out to him, he decided to continue his career at Tulsa and the chance to play for Philip Montgomery, who originally recruited Smith to Baylor. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Smith had to sit out the 2018 season, but he started all 12 games for the Golden Hurricane in 2019.
Despite playing behind an inexperienced and inconsistent offensive line, Smith threw for 3,279 yards (top 20 in the nation) as he completed 246-of-429 passes for 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a quarterback efficiency rating of 132.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly even noted the challenges Smith faced at times in 2019: “The [offensive] line was a disaster last year, and when you notice that 44 of 60 combined starts went to freshmen and sophomores, you piece together why,” Connelly wrote in a recent ESPN.com piece. “The run game was dreadfully inefficient, which put Smith in a lot of passing downs. Make the run game merely decent and the scoreboard spigot turns on.”
Tulsa finished the 2019 season a disappointing 4-8. However, a few plays here and there — most notably three missed field goals that were potential game-winners — were the difference. Smith and the Hurricane suffered several close losses, chief among those a triple-overtime 43-37 loss at nationally ranked SMU and a 42-41 loss vs. nationally ranked Memphis on a missed chip-shot field goal as time expired.
If a couple of those outcomes are reversed, Tulsa would’ve been bowl-eligible. And every coach will tell you more team success results in more individual accolades and attention — which would help Smith’s NFL hopes.
While Tulsa will lose key pieces on defense, the Hurricane will bring back nearly all of their offensive starters, which should set the stage for a strong senior season for Smith to boost his draft status. Tulsa’s offensive line should take a big step forward this season with experience and familiarity playing together, which can only further help Smith.
Additionally, this will be the first time in Smith's collegiate career that he enters a season as the unquestioned starter rather than having to split reps and compete for the starting job. Another new advantage for Smith — who has already graduated and is working on his Master's — is this season will also be the first time in his collegiate career that he will be in the same offensive system for the second year in a row.
Like Robinson, if Smith's play his senior year can result in him receiving invites to either the Senior Bowl or NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and then secure a spot at the Scouting Combine, his draft stock will climb as scouts and team personnel will get up-close, hands-on looks at Smith’s arm talent, football IQ, and character.
So if Smith puts together the type of senior season I know he can, I guarantee his name will be called in the 2021 NFL Draft. Go get ‘em, Zach.
A.J. Crisp has been sports editor for the Times-Review since 2012. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or phone at 817-645-2441, ext. 2334. Follow him on Twitter, @CTRsports.